HOYLAKE, England – Both performances were brilliant, by any measure, but after that broad stroke the comparisons wear thin rather quickly.
Where Tiger Woods picked apart a parched layout at the 2006 Hoylake Open playing small ball, Rory McIlroy blasted over, through and around whatever defenses Royal Liverpool could muster.
Where Tiger dissected Hoylake with a surgeon’s touch eight years ago on his way to his last claret jug, Rory bludgeoned the links, if not the field, into submission to claim his first Open triumph.
It was all the byproduct of a different course and two dramatically different players.
Like he did at 2011 U.S. Open and PGA Championship a year later, McIlroy added to his major legacy. The 25-year-old now stands one green jacket away from the career Grand Slam, one smashed drive at a time.
Much will be made of the Northern Irishman’s week with the putter – he was fourth in the field in total putts (110) – but this masterpiece was powered by that much-maligned Nike driver and a fearless game plan.
He ranked first in driving distance (327 yard average) and 20th in fairways hit for the week, and will remember the bomb that split the fairway at the 16th hole as he clung to a two-stroke lead over Sergio Garcia that set up a two-putt birdie.
He would only need to par the last two to become the third player in the history of the game – joining Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus – to win the first three legs of the Grand Slam on or before his 25th birthday.
“I’m glad I gave myself enough of a cushion today because I had a lot of guys coming after me,” said McIlroy, who closed with a 71 to add an unexpected level of intrigue to what was shaping up to be a formality.
The challenge that few expected ultimately came from Garcia, whose colorful history at the Open Championship reaches all the way back to that canary yellow scripting at the ’06 championship.
El Nino set himself up for another painful also-ran finish with a 12-footer for eagle at the par-5 10th hole to get to within two strokes.
And the man who once opined that he was playing against more than the field was once again negotiating with the divine. “Please be good. Please, please, please,” he pleaded as his approach bounced short of the 11th green.
For a time both golf ball and golf gods listened, like when he airmailed his approach into the grandstand right of the 12th green and watched as his ball caromed out of the seats and onto the fringe.
Karma, however, will only give so much.
At the 15th hole the Spaniard found the bunker right of the green and needed two swipes to extricate himself. The golf gods had stopped listening.
“I tried as hard as I could and just got a little too cute (at No. 15),” said Garcia, who closed with a 66 to tie for second place with Rickie Fowler for his fourth top-5 finish in the game’s oldest championship. “When you’re in a position like that you can’t make any mistakes and there was a lot of pressure.”
It was McIlroy who was favored by the golf gods on Sunday.
As he did on Day 3 when things became touch and go, McIlroy manhandled Hoylake’s closing loop. His birdie at the 16th hole moved him to 17 under and the engraver began to warm up. By the time he found the fairway at the last the R-O-R-Y were being cut into the silver chalice.
A two-putt par at the last was all he needed for a two-stroke victory and the title that has always meant the most to him.
“I want to be that person who goes on and wins majors regularly,” McIlroy said. “After this I want to think ahead and win as many events as I can.”
As McIlroy studied the claret jug, amazed that his name had already been etched into history, he scrolled by Woods’ name. Although they took vastly different paths to victory the connection was undeniable – they had arrived at the same destination.