BETHESDA, Md. — If he keeps playing like this, Rory McIlroy's next chance to close out a major should come very soon.
McIlroy, who blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the Masters, is on top at the U.S. Open, shooting a 6-under-par 65 on Thursday to take a three-stroke lead over Y.E. Yang and the man who wound up taking the green jacket, Charl Schwartzel.
There's still a lot of golf between now and Sunday, but there's no denying McIlroy looks like the player most poised to break through on one of golf's biggest stages. His three-shot lead was the largest after the first round of the U.S. Open in 35 years.
This will be the third time in the last four majors McIlroy has held the first-round lead. And at this one, his first round at a Grand Slam since the meltdown at Augusta, he didn't look one bit scared, scarred or intimidated by either the moment or the super-sized course at Congressional.
"I felt comfortable with my game and comfortable on the golf course," McIlroy said. "And when you have that combination like that, everything's OK."
He hit 17 greens in regulation and did it from the fairways, which he hit nine times, and the rough, which was thick, but maybe not as vicious as it can be at the typical U.S. Open venue.
He made putts from short and long range and strung together three straight birdies in the middle of his round. He went 18 holes without a bogey — the only player of the 156 in the field who did — a remarkable feat on a course measuring 7,514 yards for the first round.
He played most of the round in breezy conditions that weren't present in the morning, when Yang was shooting his 68 in calmer conditions. Rain that greeted the players early started again as McIlroy was heading to the ninth green — his last hole of the day — but there was no dampening this effort.
He's not looking too far ahead, either.
"I have to back it up tomorrow so I can go into the weekend in good position," he said.
Sergio Garcia, British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, American Ryan Palmer, Kyung-tae Kim and Scott Hend were tied for fourth at 2 under; a group of 10 finished another stroke back.
Plenty of golf left, but nobody in as good a spot as McIlroy, who knows all about playing from ahead. He was up big at Augusta on Sunday, but the lead and his chances were gone by the time he got out of Amen Corner. Still, he was the picture of poise and class after that dreadful day. He blamed nobody but himself, was patient in explaining the failure, called it a learning experience.
Earlier this month, McIlroy went on a humanitarian mission to Haiti, a trip he said was rewarding, not only because of the people he met but because it was a stark reminder that there are more important things than hitting a little white ball.
But he can do that very well. He beat the players in his featured afternoon threesome — Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson — by a combined 19 strokes.
"I just need to keep it going," he said. "I played really good out there, didn't make any mistakes, which in a U.S. Open is huge. I'm looking forward to tomorrow."
Closest to catching him will be Schwartzel, who ended up with a green jacket that could have been McIlroy's, and Yang, whose 2009 win at the PGA Championship might be better remembered as the one that Tiger Woods lost.
When Yang captured the PGA, it marked the first time Woods failed to win after taking a lead into the last day of a major. Yang hasn't contended at a Grand Slam tournament since, but said Congressional fits his game better than most courses.
"I've been playing more conservatively," Yang said. "I'm trying to make more pars, less bogeys and I was lucky to make a few birdies. Overall, the course and my approach has worked to my advantage."
As McIlroy, Yang and Schwartzel showed, there were good scores to be had in the USGA's first return to Congressional since 1997, when Ernie Els won the championship.
But not everyone took advantage.
The three members of the morning's marquee group — No. 1 Luke Donald (74), No. 2 Lee Westwood (75) and No. 3 Martin Kaymer (74) — combined for 17 bogeys and one double.
"Any course is a mental grind if you're not sharp. The U.S. Open is no different," Westwood said.
Meanwhile, Mickelson and Johnson were supposed to share the stage with McIlroy but instead ended up as sideshows.
Mickelson opened the day by dropping his tee shot on the par-3 10th into the water en route to double bogey. He spent the rest of the day hitting driver out of the rough, searching for his ball in the weeds and looking for miracle up-and-downs from greenside, among other things. He shot a 3-over 74 that could've been much worse.
Johnson, who blew a three-shot lead in the final round of last year's U.S. Open, will have to do a lot of work to get there this time. He hit two balls into the water on No. 11 — his second hole — and never found his groove. He finished a round of 4-over 75 that, like Mickelson's, could have been much worse.