EIGHT words summed up why Rory McIlroy became Open champion. Ten more delivered an ominous warning to his rivals for golf’s biggest prizes over the next decade or so.
“I’ve really found my passion for golf again,” admitted the Northern Irishman as he savoured becoming only the third player after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to win three majors by the age of 25.
In truth, it was difficult to imagine McIlroy ever losing that in the first place. Over the past couple of years, though, it has often been a struggle for him, on and off the course.
He took time to adjust to an equipment change but is back firing on all cylinders again.
He was distracted by his relationship with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, which ended when McIlroy broke off their engagement on the eve of this year’s BMW PGA Championship, which he went on to win at Wentworth.
He has a lawsuit hanging over his head after leaving a management company last year.
There is plenty there to have kept him awake at night but, the latter apart, they are no longer a hindrance to the 25-year-old. He is back to loving his golf again.
“It’s what I think about when I go to bed; it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning,” he added. “I want to be the best golfer I can be. And I know that if I can do that, then trophies like this (the Claret Jug) are within my capability.”
McIlroy, who had already ticked the US Open (2011) and US PGA (2012) off his list, now needs The Masters to join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen in the career Grand Slam club.
A Green Jacket, of course, would already have been in his wardrobe but for a remarkable back-nine collapse at Augusta National in 2011. That alone has fuelled McIlroy on return trips up Magnolia Lane; now the carrot being dangled there has become even bigger.
“I want to be the guy who wins majors regularly,” replied the new world No 2 to being asked if he could go on to dominate the game in the same way Tiger Woods did as he racked up 14 major titles. “I’d love to be in that position and I’ve had chances before to kick on. I did after my second major at Kiawah. I kicked on for another six months and played really well. Now I want to move forward again.” Then came that warning. “I feel there’s a lot me left in me,” he declared.
Can he win The Masters? Of course, he can. And, oddly enough, that task has been helped as a result of McIlroy finding himself out with a marker in the third round of this year’s event after making the halfway cut by the skin of his teeth.
“I’ve always been comfortable from tee to green at Augusta,” he reflected. “It’s just taken me a few years to figure out the greens and figure out where you need to miss it and some different little shots that you might need that week.
“I’ll be going to Augusta next year feeling pretty confident on the back of this win. It also really helped me playing this year with my amateur marker, Jeff Knox. He’s the best I’ve ever seen on Augusta’s greens and I might even have a couple of practice rounds with him before next year’s event.”
The irony of McIlroy becoming Open champion, of course, is that he himself didn’t seem to believe that could happen just three years ago. After finishing at Royal St George’s, he claimed the game’s oldest major was too reliant on weather conditions and that he wasn’t prepared to change his game “for one week a year”.
With his high ball flight, his game is indeed suited more to PGA Tour-style courses and the fact Hoylake was playing softer than the R&A would have perhaps liked definitely played into his hands on this occasion.
McIlroy deserves credit, through, for being properly prepared for his latest attempt to win the season’s third major, as opposed to turning up on a links course and hoping for the best.
Feeling “flat” after missing the cut in the Irish Open, he took a week off to enjoy a boys’ holiday in Ibiza. He returned from that feeling refreshed and ready to go again.
He got in some links practice back home in Northern Ireland before making his first Scottish Open appearance since 2009 at Royal Aberdeen.
After an opening 64, he could easily have gone on and won that, too. It wasn’t a disaster, though, that a second-round 78 in tough conditions put paid to his chances in the Granite City. He got four competitive rounds under his belt on a tough course and duly made it four years in a row now that the winner of the Open has used the Scottish Open as a warm -up.
It was no surprise then to hear McIlroy said he will almost certainly be back for that event when it moves to Gullane next year, when The Open is at St Andrews. “At this point, I’d see no reason why I wouldn’t,” he said. “Gullane is not too far from St Andrews, either, so it’s an easy commute.”