Rory McIlroy draws praise from peers

BETHESDA, Md. -- Golfers, by their nature, are into themselves. It is a game that requires selfishness, often a lonely pursuit of excellence.

So you can bet that those players chasing Rory McIlroy and his eight-stroke 54-hole lead heading into the final round of the 111th U.S. Open on Sunday will do all they can to put the heat on, make him sweat for the trophy, have him relive the agony of Augusta National more than two months ago.

If not, well ... they sure seem to hope he wins.

Almost to a man, you can sense those pursuers who have a lot of ground to make up at Congressional would prefer McIlroy go ahead and get it done, hoisting his first major championship.

"It's nice to see a player in total control," said No. 1-ranked Luke Donald.

"I think it would be great if he won," said Sergio Garcia.

"It's nice to see that he's doing it after the Masters and everything," said Robert Garrigus.

Yes, there is certainly a feeling that nobody other than those who have a legitimate chance to catch McIlroy want a repeat of the Masters, where he took a four-stroke advantage into the final round, was still tied for the lead on the 10th hole, then shot 43 over the final nine on his way to an 80 -- finishing 10 strokes behind winner Charl Schwartzel.

No doubt, folks are rooting for McIlroy.

"That could certainly be part of it," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, who for nearly 20 years has been Phil Mickelson's caddie. "I also think what you could be seeing is an unbelievable amount of respect. People are like, 'That is unbelievable playing.' Regardless of the conditions, nobody could have predicted those kind of scores. You have to tip your hat to the guy. It's once-in-a-lifetime type golf."

Bones was specifically referring to the first two rounds here, when McIlroy shot 65-66 to take a six-stroke lead into the weekend. Mackay had a front-row seat, as Mickelson and Dustin Johnson were in the same group.

"I've never seen 36 holes like that, not even close," Bones said. "We played with Monty [Colin Montgomerie] in '97 during the first round [of the U.S. Open here]. That was the best round of golf I've ever seen. So I would say Rory's rounds were two of the best five rounds I've ever seen, and they were back-to-back in a major.

"He hit it great, he putted it great. But that wasn't the most impressive thing. It was just how incredibly committed he was. He couldn't see anything but the fairway and played accordingly. We hadn't played with him since last August, and it sure seemed to me there was visible improvement in the way he does things. Certainly the way he cut the ball. What do you say? It was incredible, incredible golf. I could not have possibly been more impressed."

Joe LaCava, Fred Couples' longtime caddie who is now working for Johnson, also had high praise.

"Very impressed with the kid," said LaCava, who had never been in McIlroy's group before the first two rounds. "Nice kid, makes putts, plays fast. What's not to like? It would be nice to see him keeping it going.

"He's by far the best player I've seen who is in his 20s ... by far."

Bones was glad to hear McIlroy say that he wanted to remain aggressive -- something that his longtime boss Mickelson has made famous in his career.

And he saw a good bit of it at Congressional.

"He was playing offense," Bones said. "He was Tom Brady throwing it 40 yards down the field. Because he knew exactly where it was going and what he was doing. He couldn't possibly have played with more confidence."

And that continued through Saturday's round as McIlroy increased his lead -- sort of like Tiger Woods did at the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open, where in both cases he went on to big victories.

While there are still 18 holes to play, considerable accolades are coming from all around.

"Rory has proved in playing the majors so far that he is comfortable making the scores and he's managed to lead after 18 holes, 36 holes and 54 holes and 63 holes, so now all he has to do is get another nine holes and it looks like this will be the one," said three-time major champion Padraig Harrington. "What is he, 22 years old? If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack [Nicklaus'] record, there's your man.

"Winning majors at 22 with his talent -- he would have 20 more years so probably 100 more majors in him where he could be competitive. It would give him a great chance."

For years, Graeme McDowell has lauded his fellow Northern Irishman, spoken of the incredible talent that a player from a small town from Holywood exhibits.

"Playing practice rounds with him can be demoralizing, because you walk off feeling down about your own game when you see how he hit it," McDowell said. "He's potentially the next Tiger Woods. He's that good. It's great to see him out there fulfilling his potential."

McDowell, the defending champion, has the trophy for one more day. At least, it appears, it will be staying in the same part of the world.

"Once I step out on the 18th tomorrow, it's a chance to get a cold beer and watch the wee man do it," he said.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.