Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland leaves the course holding the Claret Jug trophy after winning the British Open Golf championship at the Royal Liverpool golf club, Hoylake, England, Sunday July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Photograph by: Scott Heppell, AP
HOYLAKE, England - It didn’t feel like a foregone conclusion until it was over.
Only then, the big picture settled, was it obvious that Rory McIlroy would have had to back up to let anyone else win the 143rd Open Championship.
An inspired Sergio Garcia put more heat on McIlroy than anyone thought the star-crossed Spaniard had in him.
Rickie Fowler, the closest to the leader at the start of the day, left it too late, though he made a modest charge at the end to tie Garcia for second.
But they’d have needed McIlroy’s co-operation to steal the Claret Jug from him, and the 25-year-old from Holywood, Northern Ireland held stubbornly to par, and one better, completing a wire-to-wire victory by two strokes Sunday at Royal Liverpool.
It wasn’t the six-shot cushion he had overnight, but what’s a cushion for? He didn’t have it by accident. Two eagles on the last three holes of Saturday’s third round may well have decided the championship.
“I’m happy I gave myself enough of a cushion, because there was a lot of guys coming at me, especially Sergio and Rickie,” said the fellow the R&A calls the champion golfer of the year, hefting the Claret Jug.
“Just to be sitting here and looking at this thing and having my name on it, it’s a great feeling. I’m immensely proud of myself.”
The long-hitting McIlroy’s final-round 71, featuring (against all odds) an ordinary 36 on a back nine with three par-fives in it, paled by comparison to Garcia’s 66 and even Fowler’s 67, let alone a raft of 65s shot by others on a day of soft, scoreable conditions.
But it was enough to secure his third different major title, and only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have done it faster.
And though Garcia was the one getting all the love from the fans walking up the 18th in the next-to-last pairing --- smiling, hand to his heart, blowing kisses to the crowd --- it was McIlroy, grim-faced until he had successfully escaped the greenside bunker and could afford to three-putt from 10 feet and still win, who walked off with the hardware.
“Both Rickie and I, we tried to push him as hard as we could,” said Garcia, who went out in three-under-par 32 then eagled the 10th hole to climb within two shots. “But it’s not easy when you know that you can’t make any mistakes.
“There’s so many things that have to go right for you. I needed to shoot at least 8- or 9-under … (and even then) he probably hits driver on the last, and if he hits a good drive, he makes birdie. I felt like I did almost everything I could. And there was a better player. It’s just that simple.”
Indeed, 15 years after Jean Van de Velde blew a three-stroke lead with all kinds of awful decisions on the 72nd hole, McIlroy hit an iron into the fairway at the 18th and made a homely par.
Garcia was very good, and even a little lucky Sunday, getting a huge bounce out of the grandstand right of the 12th green, after spraying his approach there, allowing him to save par. He may even have to stop reminding the golf gods that they owe him for the flagstick he hit in the 2007 playoff loss to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie.
McIlroy dropped a couple of shots on the front nine but his first really bad moment came at the par-three 13th, where he chunked a tee shot into the deep rough left and short of the green and couldn’t get up-and-down.
At that point, he was even par for the day, but Garcia was five-under, and his lead was down to two.
But Garcia stalled with a bogey at the 15th, where he left a bunker shot in the sand, and left eagle putts on the 16th and 18th, and a birdie try on the 17th, short.
Fowler shot four rounds in the 60s and still lost, but consoled himself with “two words: Ryder Cup.”
If he’s not on the U.S. team on points, he’ll be a captain’s pick.
“It was a great back nine but I didn’t get off to the start I really wanted to,” he said. “Definitely pleased with the way I hung in there, the way I fought it out. I made some great par saves. And tried to give Rory a little run at the end, but just got on the gas a little too late.”
McIlroy’s win was a popular one among players, many of whom clustered around to hug him afterward.
“They just asked me in there what my emotions are for Rory, and I used the word ‘jealousy.’ What I really meant was ‘envious,’” said Graeme McDowell, who started a run of five major wins in the a little over four years for Northern Ireland golfers, with his U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010.
“And a huge amount of appreciation for what he’s doing, respect for what he is in the game of golf, and how good he is for the game of golf. Envious and respectful and appreciative of the curly haired kid.”
McIlroy may be the future of golf, if he’s not already its present. He was asked the question again Sunday night.
“I’ve sort of talked about this a little bit this year, and some of the guys will have heard me say that golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try,” he said. “And I said I want to be that person. I want be to be the guy that goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly. I just want to think ahead and go forward and try and win as many tournaments and as many majors as I can, because I feel like there’s a lot more left in me.”
He had a rough 2013 after his first two major wins, got into a nasty legal war with his former agent, and split with his fiancée, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki who, in a nice bit of coincidence, won her first tournament of the year Sunday in Istanbul.
But it looks as though he’s back, in a big way.
“I’ve really found my passion again for golf. Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer that I can be,” he said.
“And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability. And even though there’s still one major left this year that I want to desperately try and win, I’m looking forward to next April (at the Masters) and trying to complete the career Grand Slam.”
You might want to put a bob or two on it. His dad Gerry, who won 100,000 pounds betting, 10 years ago, that Rory would win The Open before he turned 26, probably already has.
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