HOYLAKE, England — Perhaps he didn’t close it out with the emphatic flair of Tiger Woods, with whom he will be so often compared to in coming weeks. But being Rory McIlroy is quite sufficient, especially when armed with a six-stroke lead on the final day.
The fact that McIlroy made it stand up at Royal Liverpool — wobbly, perhaps, but successfully — earned him a Claret Jug and a spot among some distinguished company in golf annals. Having seen his seemingly insurmountable lead whittled to two by Sergio Garcia, McIlroy sealed his victory in the 143rd Open Championship not with thunderous drives that had put him in commanding position, but with deft precision in short-game prowess at the final two holes.
He got it up-and-down from wide right of the 17th green, then negotiated a testy greenside shot from a pot bunker at the 18th to make sure his closest pursuers, Garcia and Rickie Fowler, would get no closer than two. Though McIlroy closed with a 1-under 71, everyone around him was peppering Royal Liverpool with scores in the 60s on a day when the field average (70.542) hardly matched the typical major championship feel.
Garcia, seven back to start the day, fired a 66, and Fowler, six behind at the beginning, posted 67. Brilliant stuff, but given the head start they had provided the talented McIlroy, the best they could do was finish at 15-under 273. McIlroy, who appeared on track to match or at least tie the Open Championship scoring record of 270, did not â though the 17-under 271 entry answered a dream.
"The Open is the one we all want, the one we all strive for, and to be able to hold this Claret Jug is an unbelievable feeling," McIlroy said.
Then, turning to his mother, Rosie, who was not in attendance at either the 2011 U.S. Open or 2012 PGA Championship — his other two major wins, both by eight strokes — McIlroy beamed. "Mom, this one’s for you."
Despite how he had played through 54 holes, rounds of 66-66-68 building a massive cushion, McIlroy didn’t make it easy watching for his mother. He bogeyed back-to-back holes, at five and six, for the only time in the championship. While he did birdie the ninth to get back to 16 under, McIlroy’s lead was just two when Garcia eagled the par-5 10th.
Softened by third-round downpours Saturday, Royal Liverpool was hardly firm and fast; more like friendly and festive. A whopping 28 players, or 39 percent of the 72-man field, shot in the 60s. Of the top 11 names on the leaderboard to start the fourth round, no one shot higher than 72 and eight bettered McIlroy’s 71. It’s a sure recipe for a comeback, only not when the deficit is so large and the front-runner so efficient and intelligent.
"It’s difficult when you’re in a situation where you know you can’t make a mistake," Garcia said, not long after his only miscue of the day contributed greatly to his final position. Just two off the lead, the Spaniard was in a pot bunker at the par-3 15th and from the tee, McIlroy watched. Garcia failed to get his shot up and out, and though he did save a bogey, his hopes were pretty much dashed.
McIlroy made par at 15, birdied the par-5 16th to match what Garcia and Fowler had done, and handled his greenside duties flawlessly at 17 and 18.
Saving par at those closing holes enabled McIlroy to get his hands on the game’s most coveted trophy, but this was the feel-good Open, it seems. Garcia looked like a matador, accepting massive applause from the spectators at the 18th green after finishing in second place for the second time in the Open. And Fowler, who birdied 18 to share second with the Spaniard, was hardly disappointed in another share of second in a major (he was eight behind Martin Kaymer at the U.S. Open last month).
"Two words to sum it up — Ryder Cup," Fowler said, knowing he has sealed a spot on the American team that will take on Europe in late September.
For McIlroy, the 25-year-old from Holywood, Northern Ireland, the two words were: Careful, calculating.
He wasn’t nearly as explosive as he had been Saturday when he eagled two of his final three holes, or as deadly as he had been Thursday and Friday when he made 13 birdies, but he didn’t have to be. "He stayed patient. He’s made a ton of pars, not very many mistakes," said Jim Furyk, whose closing 65â275 gave him fourth place. "That’s what it takes to win major championships."
For certain, McIlroy understands, and because he does his legend has grown. To wit:
Pretty heady stuff, especially for a young man who in previous frustrations at the Open Championship had sounded as if he couldn’t get comfortable with links.
"To sit here and be three-quarters of the way to the career Grand Slam? I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly," he said.
Nor did he ever imagine the sort of fallout this Open victory would mean to his father, Gerry. Having years ago made a wager with bookmakers that his son would win the Claret Jug before the age of 26, McIlroy’s triumph reportedly will reap Gerry McIlroy and three friends upwards of $340,000. "They’re going to be very happy," said Rory.
For him, his joy came from the production of the first 54 holes. "I’m happy I gave myself enough of a cushion today," he said, "because there were a lot of guys coming at me."