BETHESDA, Md. — With each remarkable round, with each record-setting performance, Rory McIlroy is making his Masters debacle seem like a distant memory. A U.S. Open title could erase it altogether.
McIlroy moved closer to his first major Saturday at Congressional by stretching his lead for the third straight day with a 3-under 68 to set the 54-hole record at the U.S. Open — a mind-boggling 14-under 199 — and build an eight-shot lead going into today's final round.
That's twice the size of his lead going into the last day at Augusta National.
And this time, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman says he has learned from his mistakes.
"At Augusta, it was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with the lead," he said. "I didn't know whether to be defensive, aggressive, go for it, not go for it. But now, I know what I need to do, which is a great thing to have. I have a clear mind going out there tomorrow, and I just need to stick to my game plan."
This time, history is on his side.
No one has ever blown more than a five-shot lead at the U.S. Open. No one has ever lost any major when leading by more than six shots going into the final round. And over three days on a rain-softened course, no one looks to be close to McIlroy.
"You run out of superlatives to describe what he's doing this week," defending champion Graeme McDowell said.
For those curious whether he would crumble, as McIlroy did in the final round at the Masters when he lost a four-stroke lead and shot 80, he answered with a combination of smart play early and aggressive shots when he found his rhythm.
His only bogey came from a shot that was about 5 feet too long and tumbled into a back bunker on the par-3 10th. On the next hole, facing one of the most daunting shots on the course from deep rough, he hit a shot that settled 18 feet away. McIlroy pumped his fist when he made the birdie putt. It was a knockout punch to everyone else.
When he walked off the 18th green with a par, he was eight shots clear of Y.E. Yang (70) and one round from his first major.
With more rain overnight and cloud cover through the third round, scores resembled a regular PGA Tour event instead of a major championship designed to be the toughest exam in golf.
There were 26 rounds under par, the most ever for the third round of a U.S. Open.
Lee Westwood and Jason Day provided a "challenge" with rounds of 65. Webb Simpson was among the first out and shot 66.
But McIlroy's performance has been compared to Tiger Woods' record-setting romp at Pebble Beach in 2000. Woods was the only player under par when he built his 10-shot lead at Pebble Beach. There were 20 players under par through three rounds at Congressional. Soft conditions made it easier on everyone.
About the only drama Saturday, even after McIlroy reached 14-under par, was whether he also would break Woods' record 10-shot lead through 54 holes at a U.S. Open.
"It definitely wasn't as easy as it was the first couple of days," McIlroy said. "I knew that I was going to feel a little bit of pressure and a little bit of nerves, and it took me a few holes to get into the round."