Through the fire, Rory McIlroy ascends to golf’s throne with British Open win

Now three-fourths of the way to a career Grand Slam after Sunday's victory, Steve Elling writes this year's British Open looked like a 'coronation, procession, a march' to the top for Rory McIlroy.

Rory McIlroy has already proved he is no flash in the pan by winning the British Open championship at Royal Liverpool. Toby Melville / Reuters
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Clever minds began mulling the possibilities even before Rory McIlroy hoisted the Claret Jug over his curly head on Sunday.

In a sport as steeped in history as any, even at an event that dates back to 1860, fans already were looking anxiously ahead to April, when Rory McIlroy will take his first crack at completing the career grand slam at the Masters.

As McIlroy almost nonchalantly cruised to his third major championship by completing a comprehensive, wire-to-wire victory at the British Open at Royal Liverpool, it gave active minds plenty of room to wander.

After all, there are T-shirts to print, headlines to write and plot lines to plumb, and everybody wants a catchy name ascribed to McIlroy’s forthcoming bid.

Grand McSlam? Shamrock Slam? Ulsterslam?

As McIlroy was being dubbed the champion golfer of the year before an adoring crowd at the 18th green, the comedic permutations were still being tossed around, but there was little disputing the actual context of the moment.

Three-quarters of the way to a career slam after another jaw-dropping performance, it likely won’t require a four-leaf clover to complete his run at the record books. Talent ought to take care of it.

“He’s got complete control of what he’s doing,” defending champion Phil Mickelson said.

There have been some ups and down over the past 18 months for McIlroy, who had dodged and addressed issues relating to his personal and professional life in both chatrooms and courtrooms, which contributed to an extended fall from his perch at world No 1.

So, what changed?

Absolutely nothing, really, which was the most encouraging part of his week. His game looked identical to the put-away performances he mustered at the US Open and US PGA Championship, majors he won by eight suffocating shots.

McIlroy, 25, drove it like a laser beam and Tasered the field before they knew what happened, becoming the seventh player in British Open history to lead from start to finish and only the fifth in majors history to accomplish that feat multiple times.

“[I’m] envious and respectful and appreciative of the curly haired kid,” said Graeme McDowell, a fellow Northern Irishman.

Playing the game during the most talent-steeped point in its history, McIlroy joined Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to amass three majors at age 25, a feat that frames the week better than any. That McIlroy exudes an unaffected charisma that the haughty Woods could never manage has only heightened his popularity.

Three popular words were cited to describe his largely stress-free walk to the clubhouse on Sunday: coronation, procession and march. As Woods seemingly abdicated his throne, recording his worst 72-hole finish at a major by finishing in 69th place, the boy who would be king again moved to the fore.

No question, this feels like a tsunami, not a sea change. McIlroy has won three majors since Woods last claimed a slam title in 2008, and Woods turns 40 next year.

“I think his good golf, his best golf, is almost unbeatable,” said Ireland’s Shane Lowry of his boyhood friend.

Where others played more tactically, McIlroy fearlessly smashed his driver around Hoylake, biting off 395-yard chunks at times, displaying the power and panache that made him the game’s most popular youngster when he truly arrived on the scene with his first win, in Dubai, five years ago.

Afterward, McIlroy turned heads with his honesty and openness, characteristics that have mobilised a legion of fans. All week, McIlroy unblinkingly addressed the notion he could become the sixth player in history to complete a career slam.

“Golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try,” he said on Sunday night. “I want to be that person. I want be to be the guy that goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly, wins tournaments. I’d love to be in that position.”

He made winning the game’s oldest event look awfully easy. Even when he was being heckled by a male fan, who intentionally coughed in his backswing on the 16th tee, McIlroy striped the drive down the middle of the fairway.

Undeterred, on the 18th green, with the Claret Jug and a microphone in hand, McIlroy professed to being a lifelong Manchester United fan, which drew good-natured jeers from the Liverpool crowd.

In terms of statistics, McIlroy averaged 327.8 yards off the tee and played the par-5 holes in 12-under, the best marks of the week, though it was not all about brute strength. Throughout the tournament, McIlroy was vague about a couple of trigger words he was using to get his head straight over shots.

“It’s going to be a big letdown for everyone,” McIlroy said, laughing.

The key words were “process” and “spot”, mental points of emphasis he repeated to himself when hitting full shots and putts, respectively.

Soon enough, it will be “grand” and “slam”. A global TV audience saw the hug he gave his mum after sinking the final putt, yet it was just a prelude. McIlroy likewise wrapped both arms around the challenge and hype ahead.

“I’m immensely proud of myself,” he said. “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, I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly.”

There was nothing quick and easy about the past 18 months, a mostly dreary stretch that included forgettable play after changing club manufacturers, a public breakup with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, walking off the course in frustration in Florida and a protracted lawsuit against his former management agency. A year ago was the low point, he said, when he missed the British Open cut at Muirfield.

“I’ve really found my passion again for golf,” McIlroy 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. I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability. Even though there’s still one major left this year that I want to desperately try and win, I looking forward to next April and trying to complete the career grand slam.”

Golfers often hit it sideways, but time only marches forward. Just like that, it seems as though his rough patch never happened.

“The last 18 months for Rory can be just a blip on the radar, and perhaps he gets back to winning every time he tees it up,” McDowell said. “Who knows? It’s exciting to watch, though.”

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