HE HAS moved level with the likes of Ernie Els, Tom Morris Jnr and Snr and Raymond Floyd. He is also just one behind Seve Ballesteros and Phil Mickelson. Now Rory McIlroy has Nick Faldo in his sights.
At the age of just 25, McIlroy has racked up four major titles, having doubled his tally in the past three weeks after following a fairly straightforward Open Championship victory at Royal Liverpool with a hard-earned one in the 96th US PGA Championship at Valhalla on Sunday night.
While determined to keep his Nikes on the ground – and that is easier said than done when you add in a WGC-Bridgestone Invitational success in between those two other triumphs – McIlroy admits that his goal is to become Europe’s most decorated golfer.
“I think I’ve got to take it one small step at a time,” he said after showing a resolve to match his enormous talent as he overcame finding himself three shots off the lead in the middle of the tenth fairway to come out on top in an enthralling last-day tussle with Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson.
“I think the next two realistic goals are the career Grand Slam [he needs The Masters to complete that] and trying to become the most successful European player ever in the modern era, so I’m chasing Nick Faldo with his six majors.
“I said I thought winning the Open Championship had put me on a higher level in this game, but to then win a fourth major here to be level with Raymond Floyd and one behind Phil and Seve is something I never thought I’d get to at 25 years of age.”
What pleased McIlroy most about his latest success was the manner in which it was achieved. He won his first major, the 2011 US Open at Congressional, by eight shots. That was also the margin of victory when he added the 2011 US PGA title at Kiawah Island.
It was a little more taxing in claiming the Claret Jug on Merseyside but here, for the first time, McIlroy had to show real guts to dig out a victory on one of the game’s biggest stages.
On what was one of the best final days in a major for a long time – perhaps even as far back as the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 – McIlroy, Mickelson, Fowler and Stenson traded punches like Muhammad Ali, Louisville’s favourite son, in his epic heavyweight title fights.
“Satisfaction and joy are the two biggest things,” replied McIlroy when asked to sum up his emotions after igniting what had been a flat final round for him until that point with an eagle-3 at the tenth. He admitted getting “lucky” there with a shot from 284 yards that was “30 feet lower” and “15 yards left” of where he intended but then added birdies at the 13th and 17th as he pipped Mickelson, the 2005 winner, by a shot, with Fowler and Stenson a stroke further back.
“Satisfaction from being able to win and the manner I won, and joy that I have been able to keep this run of form going. I said at the Open Championship that I wanted to keep moving forward, I didn’t want that to be the end of the season for me, I wanted to win more.
“I was able to back that victory up with a win at the Bridgestone last week and to come here to Valhalla and do it all over again, to win three big tournaments in a row, is very satisfying.
“I was asked last night if I were to win in a dogfight would it be the most satisfying and I said ‘no’ because they are all satisfying and all majors are equal. But to know that I can mix it with the best players in the world down the stretch, having stood on the tenth fairway three behind, and come out on top means a lot. It’s great to have in the memory bank going forward.”
Considering he’d not been in the heat of battle since becoming Open champion at Muirfield last summer, Mickelson made a great fist in his bid to claim a sixth major title, while the time will surely come for both Stenson and Fowler, who has finished fifth, second, second and third in this season’s majors.
Their problem, though, is that McIlroy has a real taste for success and, on this form, it seems his name on leaderboards is starting to affect rivals the way that Tiger Woods once did.
“I felt like it did today,” noted McIlroy. “Rickie made a bogey on 14 and Phil made a bogey on 16. I am not saying that my name on the leaderboard in any way affected them but it has to do something, especially with the play I have produced over the last few weeks.”
During a well-deserved week off, McIlroy will be at Old Trafford on Saturday to watch Manchester United take on Swansea in Louis van Gaal’s first competitive match. “I don’t know if I can parade the Claret Jug and the Wanamaker at the same time – but I will try,” he said, laughing. “That will be a great thrill.”
Golf’s man of the moment also smiled when it was put to him by this correspondent that his title hat-trick had been “Made in the Home of Golf” due to the fact he added the Scottish Open to his schedule for the first time since 2009 and appeared to have found something on his game at Royal Aberdeen that has since made him untouchable.
While he claimed, not unexpectedly I suppose, that was perhaps pushing things a bit, McIlroy admitted the Scottish Open preparation had “done me well” for the Claret Jug joust and, therefore, “don’t see any reason why I won’t be playing at Gullane next year [when it stages the European Tour event].”
If he’s still playing like this, then that is an opportunity not to be missed.