Padraig Harrington puts Rory McIlroy in with chance of passing Nicklaus

Padraig Harrington did not need to see a single shot that Rory McIlroy hit in the final round of the US Open yesterday before paying him the ultimate compliment.

"If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack's record there's your man," said Harrington, referring to the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus and not overlooking the fact that Tiger Woods needs only five more.

"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.

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"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."

As Harrington spoke McIlroy had indeed led after six of the seven rounds played in the majors this season - and during the last two majors of last season.

But until he had truly banished the nightmare memory of his closing 80 at The Masters in April, a back nine implosion if ever there was one, the young Northern Irishman was sensibly not prepared to take Harrington's prediction and run with it.

"Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy," he said, burying his head in his arms when told of his Ryder Cup team-mate's comment. "You know, I'm still looking for my first one. That's all I can say - I'm looking for my first one.

"I've put myself in a great position. We'll see what happens from there."

Yet the curly-haired player from Holywood in Belfast has long known he has the talent to make his mark in history. And so have those who follow the sport.

When an amateur plays for the first time in a major two months after his 18th birthday and is in third place after the only bogey-free round of the day - at Carnoustie of all places - the golf world is entitled to get excited.

That was McIlroy in 2007, and the excitement around him has simply grown and grown until it reached its crescendo at Augusta two months ago.

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But even though he was at the time eight months younger than Woods was when he lifted the 1997 Masters he did not seek to put himself in the same bracket.

"He's done so much more for the game than I ever could or will, breaking down barriers," McIlroy said at the time.Instead, he preferred to see himself as just part of remarkable times for Irish golf.

Harrington was their first major winner since Fred Daly in 1947 when he won The Open that same week as McIlroy stepped onto the world stage.

The following season the Dubliner won two more, making Europe's first successful defence of The Open since James Braid in 1906, and then ending their 78-year wait for a winner of the US PGA title.

Then, last June at Pebble Beach, Graeme McDowell captured the US Open - Tony Jacklin was the last European winner of that in 1970 - and in October, of course, he was the man who gave Europe such a thrilling and dramatic victory at the Ryder Cup.

Back in his home country, of course, they have also known about McIlroy's talent for a long time. In July 2005, shortly after turning 16, he went round Royal Portrush in a course record 61 - and anybody who has been to those famous links can appreciate what a feat that was.

He became European amateur champion the following year - it qualified him for The Open - and reached number one on the world amateur rankings prior to his Carnoustie appearance.

McIlroy turned professional after playing in the Walker Cup against an American side that included Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson and, in just his second event, was third in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

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He was set for his first European Tour victory in Switzerland in 2008, but lost a four-shot lead and then missed from under two feet in the play-off, and it came as a huge relief when he won the Dubai Desert Classic five months later.

Not that it was easy. He led by six with six to play there, had four bogeys in a row and squeezed home by one when getting up and down from a bunker at the last.

His next victory was rather different. Days before his 21st birthday last year he made the halfway cut in the Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina with nothing to spare and thanks to a late eagle.

But he then charged through the field, and with a closing course record 62 he not just won, but won by five from Phil Mickelson, who said: "He's got the game of a veteran."

Mark O'Meara, one of the closest people to Woods, was asked for his opinion two years ago.

"Ball-striking-wise at 19, he's probably better than what Tiger was at 19," he enthused. "His technique I think is better.

"It's his mind and his heart, that's the big element. Obviously he's going to win quite a few tournaments, not only on the European Tour, but in America too.

"And there's no reason why he can't win a lot of major championships. He's got it. Nothing but bright things ahead for him for sure."

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It did not quite turn out like that at The Masters, of course. In 1996 there, Greg Norman went from six clear to five behind Nick Faldo. That was the biggest lead ever lost on the last day of a major, yet McIlroy actually did worse - from four in front to ten behind.

How would he react? Well he was third in Malaysia a week later, but the next major was always going to be the big test and this week's US Open has been it.As McDowell prepared to pass the trophy into fellow Ulster hands he said: "It's just phenomenal - you run out of superlatives to describe what he's doing this week. He's decimating the field.

"I've been waiting for this to happen. He's that good, there's no doubt about it.

"I first heard about him when he shot that 61 at my home course in Portrush. You hear rumours about people, and good players come and go, but this kid was something a bit special.

"He's potentially the next Tiger Woods - he's that good. It's great to see him out there fulfilling his potential. He's been like an accident waiting to happen."

Except, of course, it has been no accident. He has shown inner steel to cope with what happened at Augusta and come back so strongly, so quickly. And so devastatingly.

On Father's Day his dad Gerry, with him this week whereas he was back at home in April, should feel immensely proud.