U.S. Golf Association officials tipped their cap to the brilliance of U.S. Open runaway leader Rory McIlroy, but said Mother Nature had a hand in the low scoring this week at Congressional.
McIlroy has ripped up the long, tree-lined layout in record-setting fashion in shooting rounds of 65-66-68 to set new U.S. Open standards over 36 and 54 holes while becoming the first player in 111 championships to reach 14 under par.
The 22-year-old Northern Irishman was routing the rest of the field as he carried a massive eight-shot lead into Sunday's final round, but others took advantage of conditions on Saturday with two 65s and a pair of 66s also registered.
"It's our position that the golf course was more forgiving this week because of the weather that we experienced, not because Congressional is not a worthy golf course for a U.S. Open," Tom O'Toole, chairman of the championship committee, told reporters after the third round.
"It's a big, long, difficult golf course. These players caught it on a week when it's very soft."
O'Toole cited a double whammy of oppressive heat last week that kept officials from getting the golf course to top speed since they had to protect the health of the greens, and rain this week that softened putting surfaces, allowing approach shots a better chance of stopping close to the pins.
"I think the difference is Mother Nature," said O'Toole. "It's an outdoor game. We've got greens that are very receptive, and these guys can just flat play. They're that good. And one of them is obviously exceptional this week."
While Briton Lee Westwood and Australian Jason Day fired six-under-par rounds, and Swede Fredrik Jacobson and American Webb Simpson shot five-under in the third round, beyond McIlroy the rest of the leaderboard was tightly packed.
Yang Yong-eun of South Korea held second place with a six-under-par total of 207. Eighteen players were within five shots of Yang, the 2009 PGA champion.
"You've got one heck of a player playing some great golf, period," Jeff Hall, USGA managing director of rules and competition, said of McIlroy.
"If he wasn't in the field, we'd be talking about a pretty tight U.S. Open."
Still, 20 players were under par for the championship going into the final round in a tournament where course setup usually dictates that par is a very good score.
More overnight rain figured to keep Congressional invitingly soft for the field on Sunday, but McIlroy looked unbeatable in pursuit of his first major title.
"Rory is just obviously playing at a level that's a bit above everybody else this week," said Hall. "Hat's off to him."