IT WAS by no means a procession. A stuffy Sergio Garcia made sure of that. In the end, though, Rory McIlroy secured the victory his efforts richly deserved in the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
He led from pillar to post. The only time he put a foot wrong was mentioning the fact “I’m a Manchester United fan” in his winner’s speech. That didn’t go down well with the Liverpudlians in the crowd.
They will forgive him, though, after the 25-year-old treated them to one of his major masterclasses. Spectacular over the opening three rounds, solid did the trick in the final round.
Six ahead at the start, his lead was twice reduced to a couple of shots by Garcia. The Spaniard, in fact, was still in with a sniff until he left a shot in the bunker at the par-3 15th.
A closing 71 for a total of 271, 17-under-par, secured McIlroy’s first Claret Jug by two shots from both Garcia (66) and American Rickie Fowler (67). His compatriot, Jim Furyk, signed off with a 65 to finish fourth on 275. Two Australians, Marc Leishman and Adam Scott, were next on 276. Leishman also closed with a 65, as did Irishman Shane Lowry as he climbed into the top ten.
It was McIlroy’s day, though, as he claimed a third major. This, the US Open (2011) and US PGA Championship (2012) have all fallen to him before turning 26. It is only a matter of time surely that he completes the career Grand Slam by adding The Masters. By achieving that feat, he would emulate Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen.
McIlroy may have broken off his engagement to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. He also has a lawsuit hanging over his head. Neither of those things was even close to being on his mind after emulating fellow Northern Irishman Fred Daly, the 1947 winner, by becoming Open champion at Hoylake.
He punched the air after holing the winning putt. He then ushered his mum, Rosie, on to the green for a celebratory hug. She was in tears. Dad Gerry was probably jumping for joy, having just won £50,000 along with three friends for the bet they placed on McIlroy ten years ago to win The Open before he was 26. Talk about timing.
After Saturday’s weather-enforced two-tee start, it was back to normal for the final circuit. It began with the sun shining, though by the time the last few groups headed out, it had turned overcast on the Wirral.
There was still brightness when McIlroy and Fowler appeared on the tee, however. McIlroy’s top, although predominantly grey, had pink sleeves. The trimming on his shoes was the same colour. Fowler, meanwhile, was sporting bright orange – his traditional last-day colour on the back of his days at Oklahoma State University.
“Go on Rory, lad,” screamed one spectator in a thick Liverpudlian accent after McIlroy split the fairway with his driver at the first. He had also made a good job of that tee shot the previous two days, only to make a mess of it thereafter. But not this time. In went a birdie putt from around 15 feet; Fowler missed from half that distance.
Straight away, McIlroy’s lead increased to seven, though not for long. Fowler birdied the second from close range. Up ahead, Garcia, who had already birdied the first from about eight feet, rolled one in from much further away at the third. It was greeted by the Spaniard punching his fist towards the hole in celebration.
Garcia also birdied the fifth. Just through the back with his approach, the chip that followed was exquisite. It moved him to 12-under – four behind McIlroy by the time he had played the same hole. From the light rough, the leader carved his second into the base of a grandstand. Admittedly from thickish rough, his chip was heavy-handed and toppled off the other side of the green. Short with the next one, he missed from nine feet to save par. Over the previous two days, McIlroy had bounced back immediately from any setbacks. Not this time. His tee shot at the par-3 sixth missed the green on the left. His chip ran about four feet past; the putt was then pushed a touch.
From seven shots, his lead was suddenly down to just three over Garcia. At that point, McIlroy was only one of two players in the top 21 over par for the day.
The ship needed to be steadied. A good up and down from a greenside bunker at the seventh for par did the trick. After missing the green at the short ninth, Garcia did equally well to save par there. When McIlroy rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt there, he had more breathing space again. Again, though, not for long.
Garcia hit a 6-iron to ten feet behind the hole at the par-5 tenth. In it went for an eagle to go two behind. Almost from the Spaniard’s divot, McIlroy also found the green with his approach there and safely made birdie. In the circumstances, that did nicely.
Garcia got lucky at the par-4 12th. His approach was pushed. Coming off the left, the wind caught it. Luckily for him, a bounce off the grandstand was kind. From just off the green, he avoided any slippage and tossed the ball into the crowd in a sort of “thank-you”.
McIlroy failed to do likewise at the 13th. Short and left, it was probably his worst shot of the day and cost him a bogey. Back to just two in front again.
In the end, the defining moment came at the other short hole on the back nine – the 161-yard 15th. Garcia’s tee shot came up a tad short in a bunker. Paying the price for not really allowing the clubhead to release through the sand, he left his first attempt in there before knocking the next one close.
Having eagled both the 16th and 18th the previous day, McIlroy must have felt comfortable holding a three-shot lead with three to play. After giving himself an eagle chance at the first of the two par-5s in that stretch, Garcia left it woefully short. His birdie was comfortably matched by McIlroy.
Majestic most of the week with his driver, McIlroy had no need to use it on either of the closing two holes. Admittedly, an iron left him well back at the 17th, which was playing into the wind. His second came up short and right but a lovely chip saved par.
With an internal out of bounds on the right, there was no need to take any risks at the last. His iron from the tee there safely found the short stuff. Pushed a little, his next one toppled into a greenside bunker, from where he almost holed out for a spectacular closing eagle. It didn’t matter that the birdie attempt stayed out. It was job done. His total was one more than Tiger Woods’ winning score here in 2006, but no-one cared about that.
What mattered was that McIlroy had finished two shots clear of Garcia, who birdied the last, and Fowler, who picked up three shots in the last four holes. It was a terrific effort by both of them and Fowler’s time will surely come. He has now finished fifth, second and second again in majors this year. On another day, Garcia’s closing-day display would have been good enough to secure him that elusive major and he, too, will be heading into next month’s US PGA Championship feeling bullish. There was no denying, though, that McIlroy was a worthy winner.
Terrific on Thursday, there was no freaky Friday this time. Given that he had been caught at one point before opening up a six-shot lead, Saturday was superb. Solid on Sunday, it was a recipe for success.