McIlroy takes the plaudits as he finally breaks his Open hoodoo
Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30
Hail Rory McIlroy, the undisputed King of Irish golf.
The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, the tournament he most wanted to win after accomplishing the first tranche of Major victories, with a few WGC events thrown in, finally landed in McIlroy's grasp - and tears were shed.
At 27 - going on 50 in terms of golfing nous and experience, the attributes he used to the maximum in turning the screws on challenger Russell Knox - the world number three rarely gets emotional when he wins tournaments.
This was different. His inner feelings, emotions of pride, relief and joy, welled up to the surface.
As 25,000 ecstatic fans hailed his incredible 5-wood shot to the final green on the Palmer Ryder Cup course at The K Club, McIlroy's eyes visibly moistened.
What a spectacular way to finish - a courageous 253-yard blast to less than two feet, setting up an eagle putt and a three-shot winning margin from joint second-placed Bradley Dredge of Wales and Scotland's Knox.
"I don't normally cry over victories but I was trying to hold back the tears on the 18th green," he said.
"Just looking up and seeing all my friends and family, and the support I have had this week. To win in front of them... I don't get a chance to play in front of my home fans that often. To play like that and finish like that today, I will never forget it," he added.
The Irish Open dream first flared within as a 10-year old schoolboy in 1999, when a flamboyant Sergio Garcia, then aged 19, collected the title at Druids Glen a few months after turning professional.
Five years later, McIlroy flew back to Dublin from the European Young Masters as an amateur.
Portmarnock hosted the Irish Open that year, and on the Sunday the final round was still being played when the plane descended to Dublin airport, affording the young golfer a panoramic view of the course and the scene at the north Dublin links.
"I remember flying in there from Germany and looking down, seeing Portmarnock and seeing all the crowds there," he said.
"I don't know why it sticks in my head, but that's the sort of memory that I have about The Irish Open, and my first real dream about winning an Irish Open," said McIlroy.
The dream proved a nightmare for quite a long time, however.
A previous best finish of 7th in 2008, and missed cuts in 2013, '14, and '15, left a sense of embarrassment and frustration for a golfer who had reached world number one status, and won four Major titles.
Based in the US and a world traveller, McIlroy had to find a better reason to return for a tournament which had virtually been on life support, even before the downturn years from 2008.
He found it in giving back, to golf and to charity, via the Rory Foundation - and linking up with Dubai Duty Free to raise the profile of the Irish Open.
That said, he could hardly do a better job than by winning the title, and hitting two great golf shots that will echo around the world for a long time to come.
Danny Willett, the Masters champion, had fallen out of contention by the time he, McIlroy and Knox arrived at the 16th tee. Knox led by one shot at 10-under, to McIlroy's nine-under.
The Scot got on the green in three. McIlroy stood for almost five minutes in the fairway, waiting for the water-protected green ahead to clear.
With 271 yards to go, it was time for a big risk. A three-wood shot which arrowed 256 yards into the meat of the green was greeted with a thunderous roar from the galleries.
Two putts later, McIlroy had a birdie four. Classic match play situation, and Knox buckled, lipping out for a bogey. They each took a par from the 17th, and on 18 Knox found sand - while McIlroy's ball went left, but stayed on the short grass.
Around 253 yards left to go. In the Pro-Am on Wednesday, McIlroy had a similar shot from that distance.
His caddie, JP Fitzgerald, had urged a 4-iron, but the boss felt happier with a 5-wood. Taking dead aim, he launched the ball into the air and another huge roar greeted a shot to remember as it landed safely and rolled towards the pin.
"To win The Irish Open, to win your national Open, you don't get many opportunities to do it," he said.
"I knew I needed to take this chance and I'm just glad I came up with the right shot at the right time."
The champion won all the battles - mental, physical and emotional - in a gruelling tournament afflicted by torrential rain, thunder, lightning and hailstones.
Five delays - three on Saturday, which required a number of players including McIlroy, Willett and Knox to return at 7.30am yesterday to complete the last three holes of their third round - caused huge disruption to players and fans. McIlroy endured better than anyone, but there were other good news stories.
Bradley Dredge, who lost in '07 to Padraig Harrington, and Knox boosted their bank balance and Race To Dubai points by €347,420 each.
Fourth-placed Matthew Southgate, a cancer survivor, shot 68 for solo fourth place on 280, eight under par, and earned €200,000 - plus a place in the BMW PGA championship.