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Lovable pussycat Rory McIlroy poised to replace Tiger Woods

Rory McIlroy walked down that final slope, toward a green perched in a blue-black pond, toward his father, Gerry, and toward the U.S. Open trophy he'd put his arms around Sunday and held like a final breath.

McIlroy, eight shots clear of the world, was serenaded by a rolling wave of applause, cascading down Congressional Country Club's 18th fairway with every step he took, the way it had been on every hole throughout the muggy afternoon. On a hillside 200 yards behind the green, separated by a moat, fans scattered on the grass like picnickers, stood and inched closer to the baby-faced man and his moment.

It had a welcome to the future feel to it.

In winning the U.S. Open by shooting a record-setting 16-under par 268 on rain-softened Congressional, McIlroy was so good, he put Tiger Woods - whose scoring record he broke - in the past tense, at least for the moment.

"He's got the world in front of him really," Steve Stricker, the top-ranked American golfer, said. "His game looks flawless. His swing looks great. I think it looks just as good as when Tiger was in his prime and swinging at it at his best."

After all these years of looking for a rival for Woods, perhaps instead we found a successor.

That's not to write off Woods, though his absence from Congressional was more noticeable because of the unavoidable comparisons to him in the way McIlroy played.

If Woods can get healthy again, get his mind clear and rediscover his putting stroke - a major championship-sized if at the moment - he'll win more majors. But Tiger has a substantially bigger to-do list than McIlroy, who seared himself into the American golf consciousness 14 months ago when he shot 62 on Sunday to win at Quail Hollow.

Put aside for a moment the score McIlroy shot at Congressional and the margin by which he won, both of which make you squint at the numbers like Mr. Magoo trying to figure out if what you're seeing is real. Winning a major championship - any major - is golf's hardest work.

Just ask Sergi-O.

McIlroy, master of the near-miss in the previous three majors, made it look easy.

"The way he plays golf, it's a different golf. It's almost perfect," PGA champion Martin Kaymer said.

Because they're right there in front of us, playing a game we play, golfers are as much personalities as they are players. That makes McIlroy all the more appealing. There's a joy about him, a bounce to his walk, a sparkle to his smile that sets him apart but draws people to him.

He talked during the Open about trying to be a cockier player, putting a dose of killer instinct into his Northern Irish soul. It may be there, hardened by what happened at the Masters two months ago, but McIlroy radiates warmth, not coolness.

An hour before his Sunday tee time, McIlroy was rolling practice putts. Padraig Harrington, who suggested Saturday that McIlroy may be the player to challenge Jack Nicklaus's career record, walked by, caught McIlroy's eye, and smiled. A moment later, Phil Mickelson trudged in from another uninspired day, gave McIlroy a thumbs up, flashed that Mickelson smile and a few words of encouragement.

Sunday afternoon felt like a group hug.

The week before the U.S. Open, McIlroy went to Haiti where his green-brown eyes were opened to the realities of third-world life. He said he plans to return and to visit Sri Lanka, too, on behalf of UNICEF. It's not just his near-perfect golf swing that makes McIlroy special.

The only quibble with McIlroy's record score is that it came on a course stripped of its defense by soft greens, but that's the nature of hosting the Open in thunderstorm territory. When Woods shot 12-under par at Pebble Beach in 2000, the second-place score was 3-over par. At Congressional, 20 players finished under par.

Still, you can give everyone a canvas, paint and brushes but it's up to them to paint a Mona Lisa. That's what young McIlroy did.

Ten weeks ago, McIlroy stood on the 10th tee at Augusta National leading the Masters with nine holes to play. He ricocheted his tee shot off a pine tree and melted before our eyes.

With an eight-stroke lead over Y.E. Yang Sunday, McIlroy stood on the tee of the made-for-disaster par-3 10th hole at Congressional and painted the prettiest 6-iron you've ever seen against the gray sky, nearly making a hole-in-one, setting up an easy deuce.

McIlroy had answered every question except one.

How high can he fly?

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