BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Rory McIlroy never wished for a do-over — only a second chance.
When he got it, he grabbed on and didn’t let go.
He went from learning lessons at the Masters to teaching them at the U.S. Open, from absorbing a heartbreaking loss in Augusta to administering a record-setting beating near Washington.
He did it with precision on the golf course and tenderness during the victory celebration, grabbing his dad by the neck for a big hug, then telling him “This one’s for you,” as he accepted his first major-championship trophy.
He won with a performance that goes down as one of the best in the history of the sport — a wire-to-wire stranglehold that spilled fresh ink all over the U.S. Open record book and tears in his home of Northern Ireland.
“There’s a lot of joy,” McIlroy said, “and especially with this victory, there’s quite a bit of relief, as well.”
McIlroy shot 2-under 69 on Sunday to finish his four-day U.S. Open golf clinic and set aside the pain of his Masters meltdown for good. His overall score of 16-under 268 shattered the U.S. Open record — held by Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and two others — by four strokes.
Jason Day’s second-place score of 8 under tied for the third-best score in relation to par in U.S. Open history. But Day, like everyone else, knew how this one was going to turn out.
“I’m not going to go home and cry because I got whooped,” Day said. “But Rory, you can’t beat a guy that’s gone out and played as well as he has this week.”
The two greatest players in the game knew what they had seen. Tiger Woods said, “What a performance from start to finish.” Nicklaus, who had been mentoring McIlroy over the past several months, was equally impressed.
“We are all aware that he has been there before, but he showed that he learned from his mistakes, and he showed that he knew how to play the last two days with a big lead,” Nicklaus said. “Not only did Rory know how to play with a big lead, he played it confidently, played it smartly, and he never put himself in position to be in trouble.”
Though it’s only been two months, McIlroy has come a long way since he blew his four-shot lead and shot 80 on the last day at the Masters. A conversation with his father, Gerry, shortly after that collapse told the father everything he needed to know about his son.
“I said, Rory, are you OK, son?’ Because you always fear for your kids,” Gerry McIlroy said. “And he says, ‘Dad, um, I have no problem with it at all. I hit a few bad shots. And if you play golf, then you’ll understand that.'”
The hole that best defined how far McIlroy has come was No. 10, which is where his meltdown began at Augusta with a tee shot that strayed so far left, nobody could remember seeing a ball there before.
The 10th at Congressional is a 214-yard, downhill par 3 over water that had been frightening the players since the beginning of the week. McIlroy spun the ball to 2 inches.
He made birdie there to get to 17 under, then a par on 11 to keep his lead at eight strokes.
“After I got past the 11th, I sort of knew I would have had to have done something really, really stupid to not win,” McIlroy said.
He did make two bogeys down the stretch, including his first three-putt of the tournament on the 17th green, maybe just to prove he’s human. Besides that, it was another day of accurate drives and high, spinning shots into soft greens.
On the way to his victory, McIrloy also set the 36- and 54-hole scoring records and reached 17-under par — a number five shots better than the best score anyone had ever reached at any time in the history of the tournament.
At what is supposed to be the toughest test in golf, McIlroy more than passed. Over four days of nearly perfect ball control off the tee box and the fairway, he hit 62 of 72 greens in regulation — 86 percent. The leader on the PGA Tour, where the courses are easier, hits 72 percent.
Stats like those explain how McIlroy shot four rounds in the 60s, joining Lee Trevino and Lee Janzen as the only players to do that at a U.S. Open.
“To have the lowest four-round total, the most amount of strokes under par, they’re all really nice records,” McIlroy said. “I said this on Friday after everyone was talking about the lowest 36-hole, the lowest this, the lowest that. I said it’s nice, but I’ll be able to enjoy it a little bit more if I have the trophy on Sunday. And it’s worked out that way.”
With the rain that saturated the course and rough that didn’t live up to U.S. Open standards, this turned into one of the easiest venues the tournament has seen.
The course yielded 239 birdies Sunday — an average of more than 3.3 per player — and 32 rounds under par, beating the U.S. Open record for the weekend that had been set the day before.
But to most players, that didn’t take away from McIlroy’s victory.
“If you play well, and obviously Rory has, then you deserve to make birdies and shoot a good score,” said Lee Westwood, one of the few who, heading into Sunday, hadn’t already conceded the title. “If you play poorly, then you got punished out there. It was a good, fair, honest test. I thought it was great.”
Westwood joined Y.E. Yang, Robert Garrigus and Kevin Chappell in a four-way tie for third. They all knew they were in the ‘B’ flight of this tournament, and when they came off the course, they answered question after question about the winner.
“I think he has probably the most talent I’ve ever seen from a golfer,” said world No. 1 Luke Donald.
Padraig Harrington: “I think Rory has set himself apart now in potential.”
McIlroy’s buddy, Graeme McDowell: “Nothing this kid does ever surprises me. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen.”
McDowell and McIlroy make it back-to-back championships for Northern Ireland, where the song “Rory, Rory Hallelujah,” was echoing late in the evening at the Holywood Golf Club.
But this win figures to reverberate beyond his native land.
Golf has been looking for someone to take the spot Woods once held, before his personal life and game took a turn for the worse. Over a near-flawless week at Congressional, McIlroy put on a performance that foreshadowed bigger things to come.
“He’s great for golf. He’s a breath of fresh air for the game, and perhaps we’re ready for golf’s next superstar,” McDowell said. “And maybe Rory is it.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)