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US Open: Tiger cub Rory McIlroy has joined race for Nicklaus’ crown

By Karl MacGinty

Forget about the wounded Tiger —Rory McIlroy is the man to top the 18 Major championships won by Jack Nicklaus.

This bold prediction was made by three-time Major-winner Padraig Harrington, no less, as Congressional Country Club remained firmly in the grip of ‘Rory-Mania'.

US Open week began with suggestions from Ernie Els that McIlroy is good enough to “change golf history”. As it came to a climax yesterday, the Northern Irishman's record-breaking feats on the Blue Course led rivals to regard him, potentially, as the new Tiger Woods.

“Rory is that good,” said Graeme McDowell, plainly delighted at the prospect of his good friend and fellow Ulsterman etching his name onto the US Open trophy just below his own.

“His swing is phenomenal — he's got the full package as far as his golf game is concerned, if his putter behaves itself. Tiger's something very special. He had it all, the mental capacity, the short game, the putter. If Rory adds a couple of weapons to his arsenal, yeah, he can be as good.”

Not one usually given to hyperbole, Harrington picked up that ball and carried it a good deal further, saying: “Rory is 22 years old and if you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack's record, there's your man.

“Winning Majors at 22 with his talent, he'd have at least 20 more years so probably another 80 or more Majors in him where he could be competitive. That would give him a great chance.”

“Oh Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” sighed McIlroy himself, bowing his head and pulling the cap down over his eyes when informed of Harrington's bold prediction.

“It's nice to have all these complimentary things said about you but until you actually do these things, they don't mean anything.”

Yet the logic of Harrington's argument would be accepted throughout professional golf. An all-important first Major championship victory for McIlroy is expected to open the floodgates for a young man whose domination of the 111th US Open was almost as complete as the rampant Tiger's at Pebble Beach in 2000.

Nicklaus has become a mentor for McIlroy since they first met 15 months ago.

The Golden Bear has been so impressed by the youngster, he sought him out at Congressional yesterday to offer a few words of encouragement.

McIlroy's development as a golfer has been well charted. From the moment his parents put a plastic golf club in his hand, the kid clearly had no other desire in life except to go out and hit balls with it.

Amusingly, Gerry and Rosie McIlroy reveal they used be awoken by Rory in the morning with the tap-tap of that plastic club on their heads.

The youngster would show stunning potential during his mesmeric rise up the ladder in amateur and professional golf — victories in his mid-teens at the adult West of Ireland and Irish Close Championships, or that astonishing course-record 61 at age 16 in Portrush, stand out.

When they both stood on the podium after the 2007 Open in Carnoustie, Harrington looked at the Claret Jug he'd just received and nodded in the direction of Amateur Medal-winner and quipped: “I'm just glad to win one of these before Rory starts.”

This kid has always been a quick learner, yet the transformation in 22-year-old McIlroy since his final-day meltdown at April's US Masters truly has been profound.

It represents a quantum leap for a player who has but one victory on each of the European and US Tours and plainly was overwhelmed by the white-hot pressure he encountered on Sunday at Augusta National as, for the first time, he tried to defend the lead on the final day of a Major.

If he gave the world an object lesson at Augusta with his graceful acceptance of that bitter defeat, McIlroy showed at Congressional that he had used the experience to make him stronger ... to turn him into a winner at the Majors.

“From Augusta I learned how to approach the final round of a Major. I think that's the most important thing to come out of it,” he explained.

“It was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with the lead at Augusta. I didn't know whether to be defensive or aggressive; to go for it or not to go for it. But now I know what I need to do, which is a great thing to have.”

For all the scoring records McIlroy broke over four astonishing days at Congressional, the eight-stroke lead he took into yesterday's final round was not the greatest in US Open history — Tiger was 10 ahead of his nearest

rival at Pebble Beach in 2000 and pressed on to win by an all-time Major championship high of 15.

Yet as he did on Saturday, when McIlroy took an unprecedented six-shot lead into the weekend at the US Open, the young Ulsterman “tried to set myself little targets which would keep me from focusing on the leaderboard or how far I was ahead”.

Lee Westwood, joint second overnight, crassly reminded the world on Saturday night: “Rory had a big lead in a Major and didn't deal with it well before”.

The young Irishman dined with Westwood on Saturday and when asked if he'd received any advice from the Englishman, said: “No definitely not”.

Yet the young Ulsterman is no longer the boy who Westwood once said he'd “bullied” into submission at the 2009 Dubai World Championship.

Neither is McIlroy the broken young man who stood with his head in the crook of his arm on the 13th tee at Augusta.

If the Green Jacket had been lost, a lifelong experience was gained.

It's mind-boggling to think of such a small country as Northern Ireland producing successive US Open Champions or of five Major titles coming to the island since Harrington broke a 60-year drought at Carnoustie in 2007.

“They build us tough in Ireland,” said McDowell. “Yet Rory is phenomenal. There's nothing he cannot achieve in golf.”

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