BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — Rory McIlroy kept punishing the golf course and the record book Saturday, setting himself up with an eight-shot lead at the U.S. Open with 18 holes left between him and his first major championship.
In a third round that felt more like a regular day on tour than the toughest test in golf, McIlroy shot 3-under-par 68 to finish at 14-under 199, breaking Jim Furyk’s record for the best 54-hole score by one stroke.
McIlroy leads Y.E. Yang (70) by eight and Lee Westwood (65), Jason Day (65) and Robert Garrigus (68) by nine.
The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland will sleep on the lead heading into the final day of a major for the second straight time. But this lead is double the size of the one he held at the Masters two months ago, when he blew up on the back nine, shot 80 and finished 15th.
“Overall, I’m very happy with the way I played today,” McIlroy said. “Now, I just have to do that for 18 more holes.”
Knowing their chances were slim to catch the leader, the rest of the field took its frustration out on Congressional, a softy of a course thanks to forgiving rough and rain-soaked greens.
There were 26 rounds under par, a record for the third round of the U.S. Open, and the 72 players carded a total of 224 birdies.
Could’ve been a scary scene for McIlroy, who saw the mid-60s on the board before he ever reached the first tee box, but he didn’t waver.
He played scrambling golf over the first few holes, while he was having trouble finding the fairway, then made birdies on No. 5, 9, 11 and 14 to get to 14-under, a number never seen before on a U.S. Open scoreboard. Of course, that’s old news by now. On Friday, McIlroy reached 13 under for the first time in U.S. Open history and took a record-tying six-stroke cushion into the weekend.
His eight-shot advantage is two short of the lead Tiger Woods took to Sunday at Pebble Beach in 2000, when he routed the field by 15 shots. Though McIlroy and his performance during a near-perfect week of golf are drawing comparisons to Woods, he wants no part of it.
“I’m still looking for my first one,” McIlroy said. “That’s all I can say. I’m looking for my first one. I put myself in good position to do it tomorrow and we’ll see what happens.”
The way he’s playing, and with a cushion as soft as the golf course he’s overrunning, it would take something of epic proportions to prevent it. The biggest final-day lead ever surrendered at a major was six strokes, when Greg Norman lost to Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters.
“When you go in 12 behind somebody, you can play as well as you’d like to play but it’s still going to be a matter of the leader coming back to you,” Westwood said. “No use thinking about what Rory’s doing. But I’ve played with big leads in the past. It’s not easy. We’ll see what happens.”
Yang will be paired with McIlroy for the second straight day. He came into the third round six shots behind and had the best chance to apply pressure. But he moved backward, not closer, and he was sensing the inevitable.
“I’ll try and catch up with Rory as much as possible, as much as I can,” Yang said. “But if he doesn’t let go, it’s going to be a race for second place. I’m playing some good golf right now, actually.”
Not good enough. And if he felt any glimmer of hope when McIlroy made his single bogey of the day — on No. 10, after hitting tee shot into a back bunker — it was gone in a flash.
McIlroy answered by hitting an approach shot from the rough to 18 feet on No. 11, then sinking the putt and pumping his fist as he walked to grab the ball from the hole.
That put him back at 13-under par. On 14, he hit his approach to 6 feet and made that.
On the front side, McIlroy wasn’t nearly as locked in early Saturday as he was during the first two rounds, when he set the 36-hole U.S. Open scoring record at 11-under 131. He missed fairways on 1, 3, 8 and 9 on the front side and pushed his approach into a greenside bunker on No. 4. But he made par or better on all those holes and his lead — six shots at the beginning of the day — never shrank.
The tone for the day and the course was set early, when Webb Simpson shot 5-under 66 to move to 1 under.
“The golf course is pretty soft. The greens are soft,” said Simpson, who made seven birdies. “I got a couple good lies in the rough today that I probably didn’t deserve. I think you’ll see some pretty good scores like mine, and some pretty high scores, too.”
The USGA prides itself on setting up the toughest courses on the planet. But Congressional hasn’t lived up to that reputation.
All the players knew it, even the ones who weren’t taking advantage.
“The rough isn’t quite as gnarly as at some other U.S. Opens,” world No. 1 Luke Donald said after shooting 3-over 74. “It has a different feel. It almost feels like the Firestone or something. But it’s still tough out there. Some tough pins and you’ve got to play well to shoot a good score.”
Day was among those with the good scores. The 23-year-old, who finished second at the Masters, didn’t make a bogey and finished the day with a birdie on No. 18.
He scoffed at the idea that everyone but McIlroy was playing for second. But as the day wore on and McIlroy’s play kept getting better, the inevitable was starting to set in.
“He’s playing awesome,” said Sergio Garcia, whose 2-under par would be in contention during most years at the U.S. Open. “I would expect him to play the same way tomorrow and probably win.”