Hoylake, LIVERPOOL – (July 20) – It wasn’t quite the runaway anticipated but there was still full Open Championship glory for Rory McIlroy.
The 25-year-old Northern Irishman held his nerve on a day of low scoring and high drama at Royal Liverpool to become the 143rd “Champion golfer of the year” and the third youngest player behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to win three of the game’s four majors.
McIlroy started the final round with a six shot buffer and though he ended it just two ahead of the Spaniard Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler of the USA, this was a triumph that seems destined go down in history as the third leg of a career grand slam. A one-under-par 71 got the job done at Hoylake as McIlroy added to his eight stroke 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA Championship victories and wrote himself into countless chapters of Open folklore.
To think, aged just 25 years and 77 days, McIlroy could already have the slam but for his final day meltdown at the 2011 Masters when he blew out to an 80 after starting the final round four ahead. There is still much golf to be played in 2014, not least next month’s US PGA Championship at Valhalla and September’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. But already the golf world looks forward to Augusta National next April with excited expectation. McIlroy might trail Adam Scott in the world rankings and still has a long way to go to match Tiger Woods’ 14 majors, but he is surely now the golfer, the pin-up boy of golf’s exciting new, long-bombers generation.
“It feels absolutely incredible,” McIlroy said of hoisting the Claret Jug after becoming just the 10th player to go wire-to-wire at the Open.
“It’s sort of cool that they put your name on there even before you get it, so that was a nice little touch. Just to be sitting here and looking at this thing and having my name on it, it’s a great feeling. The Open is the one we all want, the one we all strive for and to get hold the Claret Jug is a special feeling.”
McIlroy is perhaps the first Open champion to be booed at the presentation of the Claret Jug when he thanked the Liverpool galleries for their support but couldn’t help slip in that he is a Manchester United fan. But he was soon
forgiven and began his next major challenge, trying to believe what he had achieved.
“Yeah, I’m immensely proud of myself. To sit here 25 years of age and win my third major championship and be three-quarters of the way to a career grand slam, yeah, I never dreamed of being at this point of my career so quickly. Especially being someone from around here…the Open Championship was the one you really wanted growing up, and the one you holed so many putts on the putting green to win, to beat Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, whatever.
“I didn’t quite need to hole a putt today to do it, just a little tap-in, which was nice. As I said, it hasn’t really sunk in. [But] the more I keep looking at this trophy and seeing my name on it, the more it will start sinking in.”
An expensive bottle of red promised to be sunk from the Claret Jug last night – ala Phil Mickelson at Muirfield last year – and while McIlroy could afford any vintage he fancied after pocketing £975,000, chances are his dad Gerry was buying. A £400 bet Gerry and three mates put on the young McIlroy to win the Open before he turned 26 turned into a sweet £200,000 bonus for a very proud dad on a very proud day. It was special too for mum Rosie – this was the first time she’d been on hand to witness one of her son’s major wins.
McIlroy cannot wait to defend his title at St Andrews next year, his favourite Open venue, but before then there is the PGA and that Masters, of course. In other words, there is more history beckoning for McIlroy who admitted he had “really
found my passion for golf again” after a turbulent couple of years on and off the course, including the divorce with his old management company and the broken engagement with tennis star Caroline Wozniaki.
“I just want to be the best golfer I can be. And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability. I’d love to win a lot more. Even though there is still one major left this year that I want to desperately try and win, I’m looking forward to next April and trying to complete the career grand slam.”
So, after that forgetful Masters moment in 2011, do you now have the game to win at Augusta National?
“Yeah, I’m getting more comfortable. I’ve always been comfortable from tee to green at Augusta and it’s just taken me a few years to figure out the greens and figure out where to miss it and some different little shots that you might need that week. I’ll be going to Augusta next year pretty confident. What really helped me last [April] was playing with Jeff Knox in the third round. He’s my amateur marker and he’s the best I’ve ever seen on Augusta’s greens. I might have to take a couple of trips up before it next year and have a couple of practice rounds with him.”
FINAL ROUND DRAMA
McIlroy started Sunday at Royal Liverpool like he had left off Saturday evening when he eagled the 54th hole – in other words brilliantly. A drilled driver down Hoylake’s first fairway set up a birdie that would stretch his lead to seven at 17 under. But this coronation wasn’t going to so easy. While McIlroy remained steady, all around him players where feasting on birdies.
In the penultimate group ahead, Garcia gained shots at the first and third to move to 12 under and cut the eventual champion’s lead to four. McIlroy seemed in control until a bogey at the par 5 fifth – a hole he had birdied in all three previous rounds – was followed by another dropped shot at the par 3 sixth.
A birdie two at the ninth steadied the listing ship McIlroy and he was five in front with a two-putt gain on the par 5 10th. But Garcia, riding his luck, and later Fowler, refused to be removed from his rear-view mirror.
An eagle for Garcia on 10 reduced the lead to two before McIlroy coolly answered with his birdie to extend to three ahead. But McIlroy’s bogey on the par 3 13th, following a six iron that was woefully short and left and finished in the thick Hoylake hay, meant Garcia had a sniff at just two adrift once more.
The Spaniard had been fortunate to par the 12th when his 175 yard approach cannoned into the seats of the grandstand to the right of the green, only to ping-pong out onto the fringe from where he got up and down with his putter. Garcia kissed his ball and threw it back into the friendly stand but his luck was to run out two holes later when he inexplicably failed to escape a pot bunker to the right of the par 3 15th and bogeyed.
There was one last glimmer of hope when Garcia birdied the 16th but McIlroy would soon match that two putt gain to give himself a three shot buffer with two to play. Once he’d got up and down from the right side of the 17th green, the final, nerve-jangling hurdle had been surmounted.
Both Garcia and Fowler (who has finished runner-up in both the US and British Opens this year) had eagle attempts on the 72nd hole but two putted for birdies to finish 15 under, adding much to this absorbing final day. McIlroy meanwhile nearly holed a bunker shot on the last before settling for a tap-in par and his place in history.
With that, the world had the answer to the two “trigger” words McIlroy employed all week long before hitting each shot. He insisted the gathered media corp would be disappointed with his answer but you can bet countless amateurs the world over will now recite the words “process” and “spot” in their weekend haggles.
“With my long shots I just wanted to stick to my process and stick to making good decisions and good swings. And ‘spot’ was for my putting. I was just picking a spot on the green and trying to roll it over my spot every time. I wasn’t thinking about holing it. I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean. If it went in, great, if it didn’t, then I’d try it the next hole.”
It’s fair to say McIlroy was spot on all week and, it seems, has the processes in place to dominate for many more years to come.
143rd Open Championship – Leading Final Scores
271 – Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland) 66-66-68-71
273 – Sergio Garcia (Spain) 68-70-69-66; Rickie Fowler (USA) 69-69-68-67
275 – Jim Furyk (USA) 68-71-71-65
276 – Marc Leishman (Australia) 69-72-70-65; Adam Scott (Australia) 68-73-69-66
277 – Charl Schwartzel (South Africa) 71-67-72-67; Edorado Molinari (Italy) 68-73-68-68
278 – Shane Lowry (Ireland) 68-75-70-65; Graeme McDowell (74-69-68-67), Victor
Dubuisson (France) 74-66-68-70.