McIlroy dominates in Royal Liverpool

Two words propelled Rory McIlroy to victory in the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. They weren’t “My Destiny” but easily could have been.

The Northern Irishman added the Open Championship to his 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship victories (he won those first two by eight shots), and he became the 16th player to win three of the four major championships. Only five – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – have won the career Grand Slam. At age 25, McIlroy could join that exclusive club at next year’s Masters.

He might just have added another PGA Championship by then, too. He’ll arrive in Louisville, Ky., in a few weeks as the outright favorite. He also might turn up as World No. 1. The victory at Hoylake advanced McIlroy six places in the Official World Golf Ranking, to second, behind Adam Scott.

McIlroy was almost as dominant in this Open Championship as Tiger Woods was when he won here eight years ago. The only difference was that McIlroy won on a green golf course, and Woods, who hit driver only once in ’06, won on toasty, burned-out fairways. This go-around didn’t go as well for the 14-time major winner, who posted his worst 72-hole result in his 18th Open start (69th place, at 6-over 294).

How dominant was McIlroy? So dominant that he pretty much won the tournament on Saturday and took a lap of honor in the final round.

Two eagles in the last three holes in Round 3 moved McIlroy to 16 under par and gave him an unassailable six-shot lead over Rickie Fowler. All McIlroy had to do on Sunday was stick to his two trigger words to fulfill the destiny expected of the former child prodigy.

“It was ‘process’ and ‘spot,’ ” McIlroy said of the two words he employed to tame Royal Liverpool. “With my long shots, I just wanted to stick to my process, stick to making good decisions, making good swings. ‘Spot’ was for my putting. I was just picking a spot on the green and trying to roll over my spot every time.”

The luck of the draw plays a huge part in who wins the Open Championship, and McIlroy was fortunate to be on the good side of it. His early Thursday/late Friday combination meant he played in calmer conditions Thursday and avoided the 15-25-mph winds that swept across Royal Liverpool on Friday morning.

The top eight players heading into the weekend were all beneficiaries of early/late times. In fact, of the top 23 players, 18 played early/late. The first 60 players who teed off Thursday morning were collectively 39 over after 36 holes. Compare that with 283 over for the first 60 players who teed off on Friday morning.

England’s Justin Rose, one of the tournament favorites, was unlucky to get a 2:27 p.m. tee time Thursday and a 9:26 a.m. time Friday.

“Even on the downwind holes, it was hard to get the ball close to the hole,” Rose said. Playing competitor Adam Scott agreed. “There were holes where I was hitting 6-iron from in the 140s (yards),” Scott said.

The winds calmed by the time McIlroy went to the tee mid-Friday afternoon. All morning, the three back-nine par 5s (Nos. 10, 16 and 18) played into the wind. By afternoon, they were reachable. McIlroy birdied two of the three.

That was nothing compared with his closing prowess Saturday. He and Fowler, who has top-5 finishes in three consecutive majors, were tied for the lead with five holes to play. McIlroy eagled the 16th hole with a drive and a 4-iron from 248 yards to 21 feet; two holes later, he hit driver and a mighty 5-iron (from 237 yards) to 11 feet, draining the putt for a six-shot lead.

It was an emphatic statement, and the tournament appeared to be all but over.

“Those two eagles went a long way in deciding this championship,” McIlroy said.

Fowler and Sergio Garcia briefly threatened McIlroy’s lead Sunday. The Spaniard was within two shots when McIlroy dropped to 16 under with a bogey at the par-3 13th hole. However, Garcia gave the shot back when he bogeyed the short 15th, dumping a wedge into a pot bunker and taking two to extract himself, allowing McIlroy an easy stroll down the last few holes.

The Hoylake McIlroy was a far cry from the player who had competed at Muirfield 12 months earlier. There, he missed the cut after rounds of 79-75.

He was in the midst of a slump then that had people questioning the equipment change made at the start of the year. He left Scotland claiming he was “brain dead.” If everyone else was wondering what was going on, McIlroy wasn’t.

“I never had doubts,” he said. “You can’t doubt your own ability. All I had to do was look back at some of the great tournaments that I played. The ability was still there. It was just trying to make it come out again.”

Missing the cut at Muirfield was his low point. “I’d never missed a cut at the Open before,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll try to never make that happen again.’ ”

McIlroy won the BMW PGA Championship in May, but adding his third major dispelled any doubts that he is back where he belongs.

“He’s gone through a struggle with his golf game over a period of time, and now it seems like he’s got it back,” said Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion who made the cut at Hoylake at age 64. “You learn a lot from your failures, and come back stronger if you fail.”

McIlroy never was meant to fail. Not from the first time his father, Gerry, handed him a sawed-off 3-wood with a baby-blue grip at age 3 and took him to Holywood Golf Club near Belfast.

Gerry McIlroy’s story of working two extra jobs to help finance young Rory’s development is well chronicled. He did everything to advance his son’s dream.

“We would go to the golf course on a Sunday and come home and have dinner,” the elder McIlroy once said. “I’d be all set to settle back on the couch and relax on my one day off, but Rory would be pestering me to take him to the driving range. When I’d try to talk him out of it, he’d say, ‘You want me to improve, don’t you?’ ”

That hunger for improvement is as strong now as it was then.

“I’ve re-found my passion again for golf,” McIlroy said. “That’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 I can be. I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability.”

They always were, even when Rory was just a lad of 15. That’s when Gerry and three friends walked into a bookmaker’s shop in Holywood and laid down a £400 bet at 500-1 odds that the kid would win the Open Championship before he reached his 26th birthday.

Such a wager might seem crazy, but it really wasn’t. Rory McIlroy was destined to win major championships. Lifelong coach Michael Bannon knew his pupil was special from the moment McIlroy won his first “major” championship.

“He won the Ulster Boys Championship at Donaghadee when he was 13,” Bannon said. “That’s when I first thought, My God, I can’t believe how good this boy is. He was so mature.

“His mental ability, attitude, just his whole approach to the game was different. He just was different to the rest of the kids, and it was obvious.”

He was in a different class at Royal Liverpool, too. Fowler can attest to that.

“Rory just kind of distanced himself from the field a bit,” said Fowler, who frequently sees McIlroy around town in Jupiter, Fla., where they live and play.

Fowler, who has undergone extensive swing work with Butch Harmon in the past year, proved something, too: he has the game to win majors, if not dominate them much like McIlroy can.

“It’s hard to be disappointed about it because it was such a great week,” Fowler said. “It doesn’t feel like a big stage. It feels like I should be here.”

McIlroy is three-quarters of the way to the Grand Slam, and he has yet to win the major most suited for him.

“That’s a pretty impressive thing for him to do, especially given that the one he’s missing is the Masters,” Phil Mickelson said. “With his length and the way he plays, and how well he plays that golf course, that definitely will happen, probably soon. That just shows that he’s such a complete player at such a young age.”

McIlroy becomes just the third man in the modern era (following Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) to win three majors by age 25.

“Golf is a bit like an exam paper,” McIlroy once said. “I like the fact that each day asks different questions of you.” And at Royal Liverpool, he proved beyond a doubt that he has the answers.

McIlroy gets last word with hecklers

Hoylake, England

It wasn’t just the grass that was lush at Royal Liverpool. So was a portion of the gallery that followed leaders Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler when they teed off at 2:40 p.m. in the final round. Some of the local lads were suitably “oiled” by that time, and displaying the sort of behavior that spoils English soccer games.

McIlroy was heckled at the par-5 fifth hole and glared in the direction of the gallery to the right of the green. Fowler received similar treatment on the par-3 sixth and had to back off his par putt. Six members of the Merseyside Police were walking with the final group by the time the pair reached the ninth hole. Several times the local bobbies had to have words with drunken spectators. It came to a head when a heckler was ejected after disturbing McIlroy’s drive on the 16th hole.

“He was giving me grief all day, actually,” McIlroy said. “And I sort of put up with it for the first 15 holes, and then he deliberately coughed on my downswing on the 16th tee. I still hit a great drive. But I heard it halfway down, and I knew who it was. So I turned around and got him chucked out, thankfully.”

The majority of the massive final-round crowd was well behaved, but at times this Open Championship Sunday verged on ugly. Polite applause is the norm at the Open Championship, not the raucous behavior that spilled out of some members of Sunday’s Hoylake gallery. Perhaps the R&A might have to rethink its beer-sales policy for the next time the Open Championship returns to Royal Liverpool, which has not been set.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the July 25, 2014 issue of Golfweek magazine; click here to subscribe.

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