HOYLAKE, England – Who said these words?
“My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don’t enjoy playing in really. That’s the bottom line. I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”
Three years ago at rainy, windy Royal St. George’s Rory McIlroy, just a month after his first major win at the U.S. Open, did not love his beloved Open Championship. It’s the championship McIlroy grew up dreaming of winning, but there he stood on that undesirable day and admitted he wasn’t mentally strong enough to battle the elements that this style of golf often presents.
“Just wait for a year when the weather is nice,” he said.
Well, the weather was mostly ideal for four days at Royal Liverpool and McIlroy won. The 25-year-old captured the 143rd edition of the game’s grandest championship to grasp his third major and the third leg of the career Grand Slam, something only Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24) have done at a younger age. He’s the first European player, and 16th player overall, to win three different majors.
This one, however, wasn’t easy. Not by any means.
It wasn’t an eight-shot romp like the record-setting performance three years ago at the U.S. Open at Congressional. It didn’t mirror the eight-shot dominance McIlroy displayed two years ago at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.
Sure, for three days it seemed this victory would be similar. McIlroy eagled two of the last three holes on Saturday to sleep on a six-shot lead but held off hard-charging Sergio Garcia (66) and Rickie Fowler (67) on Sunday to shoot 71, good for a 17-under-par 271 total and two-shot victory. McIlroy is the youngest player in history to win two majors wire-to-wire without any ties.
“I’m immensely proud of myself,” McIlroy said, jug in hand. “To sit here 25 years of age and win my third major championship and be three-quarters of the way to the career Grand Slam, yeah, I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly.”
Don’t let the final-round 71 get in the way of the bigger picture. While the likes of Garcia, Fowler, Jim Furyk, Marc Leishman, Adam Scott and Shane Lowry were throwing darts into greens and collecting birdies like it was a weekend scramble, McIlroy did what he needed to do in the final round even though it wasn’t picture perfect.
The beautiful part was the first 54 holes, where McIlroy opened with a flawless 66, slayed the demons of recent poor Friday performances in Round 2 and closed with that eagle flurry in the third round. The common theme during that stretch was that he launched booming drive after booming drive, sent laser-like iron shots into greens at will and made every crucial putt. That deadly trifecta allowed McIlroy to build the massive lead and give him wiggle room on a Sunday with the revered claret jug on the line.
“Just envious and respectful and appreciative of the curly-haired kid,” McIlroy’s compatriot Graeme McDowell said.
Tiger Woods, who finished 23 shots behind McIlroy, said, “When he gets it going, he gets it going.”
For most of the week McIlroy teased media by saying he had two simple words that he kept repeating to himself that had him insanely focused. Some predicted it would be words like “claret” and “jug” but ultimately McIlroy confessed that it was “process” and “spot.” His goal was to focus on the process, no matter the result, and putt to a spot on the greens that would allow him to make putts.
“It’s going to be a big letdown for everyone,” he said before the big reveal. “That was it.”
True, it was a letdown, but no one particularly cares. Point is, McIlroy has won another major, and many more seem in the offing. In the past 18 months McIlroy has gone through an equipment change, a change in representation and an end to a high-profile relationship that seemed headed for marriage, among other snafus. He didn’t play his best golf during that span, but he’s back on top now with a renewed vigor for his craft. It’s good for the game that Rory’s got his groove back.
“I've really found my passion again for golf,” he said. “Not that it ever dwindled, but it'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 that I can be. And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability.”
About those trophies, now we look ahead. McIlroy’s length and precision – or process and spot, I guess we should say – could prove handy on a massive Valhalla track that will host the PGA Championship in three weeks just east of Louisville, Ky. No one is going to hand him the Wanamaker Trophy but he’ll be the heavy favorite and it’d be a surprise if he’s not in the hunt at the very least.
“I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly,” McIlroy said emphatically.
At the risk of getting way ahead of ourselves, there will be suffocating hype for McIlroy heading into the Masters next April as he looks for the final piece of the career Grand Slam. He’s had a chance to win there but crashed and burned for the whole world to see. Everyone remembers the 2011 debacle where he led after 63 holes but butchered the back nine with a 43 to shoot 80 and tie for 15th place. He tied for eighth-place this year. Augusta National suits McIlroy’s game as much, if not more, than any other major venue.
Five men have captured the career Grand Slam in the modern era, but the only man to earn the final piece of the puzzle at the Masters is Gene Sarazen in 1935. Hysteria awaits.
“That’s a pretty impressive thing for him to do, especially given that the one that he’s missing is the Masters,” Phil Mickelson said. “And you know with his length and the way he plays and how well he plays that golf course, that that definitely will happen and probably soon. And that just shows that he’s such a complete player at such a young age.”
Much like Mickelson wasn’t afraid to face career Grand Slam talk after last year’s Open win at Muirfield, McIlroy stepped up to the plate and didn’t duck similar questioning.
“I’ve always been comfortable from tee to green at Augusta,” he said. “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 into Augusta next year pretty confident.”
And he’s leaving Hoylake as confident as ever before. Scary.