BETHESDA, Md. — A few months removed from his Masters meltdown, Rory McIlroy is in the lead at the U.S. Open.
McIlroy, who lost a four-shot lead in the final round at Augusta in April, climbed into first place at Congressional on Thursday, making three straight birdies on his way to 5-under par through 13 holes. He was two shots ahead of Y.E. Yang and Sergio Garcia.
Garcia was still on the course, while Yang, whose win at the 2009 PGA Championship might be better remembered as the one that Tiger Woods lost, was in the clubhouse after shooting 68.
This time, Yang won’t have to worry about Woods, who is home nursing an injured knee and Achilles.
“Half of my heart is disappointed,” Yang said. “The other half is probably, I wouldn’t say thrilled, but I know my chance is a little bit better because Tiger is not in the field.”
When Yang beat Woods at 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 Country Club 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.”
He is seeking his second major, while McIlroy is still looking for his first. The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland was nine holes away from winning the Masters in April but started spraying shots around Augusta and fell into a tie for 15th.
He handled the disappointment gracefully, said he’d learn from it, and he walked onto Congressional on a breezy afternoon and showed what he meant. Opening on the back nine, he made an 8 footer for birdie on No. 17 and a putt more than twice that long on 18, then made it three in a row with another birdie on No. 1. He was the first player to reach 5 under at the tournament, regarded as the toughest test in golf.
With five holes left, McIlroy was three shots ahead of American Ryan Palmer and Louis Oosthuizen, who won the British Open last year on the links at St. Andrews and saw a much different course at super-sized Congressional. The South African had an uneven round — six birdies and four bogeys. He was in the lead for a while, fell back to even par but played 16, 17 and 18 at 2 under to get back near the top of the leaderboard.
Oosthuizen said the course, softened by rain early in the round, seemed easy compared to what he’d heard might be coming.
“But it’s only my second U.S. Open, so I can’t really say,” he said.