Pragmatic edge makes McIlroy a dangerous predator
Some chuckled and others nodded sagely when Padraig Harrington, cradling the Claret Jug for the first time, gestured to 18-year-old Rory McIlroy and said "I'm glad to get my hands on one of these before he starts winning them."
That was on the 18th at Carnoustie in 2007. Harrington had just completed a famous sudden-death victory over Sergio Garcia to register the first victory in 60 years at The Open by an Irish golfer, while McIlroy collected the silver medal awarded to the leading amateur.
Well, seven years later, that day has come.
For sure, McIlroy has already won twice at the Majors, romping to record-shattering victories at the 2010 US Open at Congressional and the 2012 PGA Championship on Kiawah Island.
Yet even though Sunday's at Hoylake was achieved by just two strokes, instead of the remarkable eight which separated the young Ulsterman from his closest pursuers at Congressional and Kiawah, it was every bit as impressive, if not more so.
McIlroy, an outrageously gifted showman who loves to take on swashbuckling shots, played prudently and with patience through all four rounds, striking only when the moment was right.
He applied himself so staunchly to the game plan, never once resorting to panic or impetuosity, that it suggested a new era has dawned in world golf.
The pragmatic McIlroy we saw at Royal Liverpool didn't need to shoot the lights out on Sunday to win The Open. That knowledge, combined with his refreshed dedication to the game following the end of his engagement, makes the 25-year-old more dangerous than ever.
A new predator has been born, so don't be surprised if he snaps up the PGA title at Valhalla, a course which will suit him even better than Hoylake, then solves the riddle of the greens at Augusta and completes his career Grand Slam at Augusta National next April.
It was intriguing on Sunday to hear Tiger Woods offer his verdict on McIlroy's performance in emulating himself and Jack Nicklaus by completing three legs of a career Grand Slam by age 25.
Asked if he expected the Holywood native to go on and dominate Major championships in the way he had done, Tiger was less than effusive.
"You can see, the way Rory plays is pretty aggressive," Woods said. "When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It's one or the other. If you look at his results, he's kind of that way.
"Very similar to what Phil (Mickelson) does, he has his hot weeks and he has his weeks where he's off."
The view that McIlroy, by nature, is and always will be a streaky player has been around for some time and certainly suits Woods in his lifelong quest to match and beat the 18 Major championships won by Jack Nicklaus.
Yet the 'new' McIlroy, the man who had dedicated himself to becoming, like Woods, a player who will compete in every tournament and, especially, every Major championship he plays, represents the greatest obstacle to Tiger's hopes of winning four or more Major titles before his creaking body finally gives out.
Woods considered the question about McIlroy so significant, the answer he gave (not all of it's reproduced here) was by far was the longest in his media conference on Sunday after signing for the final-round 75 that left him wallowing on six-over-par in 69th place.
Regardless of the circumstances, Tiger doesn't waste time talking about losers. You can bet he views McIlroy as his greatest rival.
In the summer of 2013, as McIlroy approached rock-bottom in the deepest slump of his career, Harrington and Paul McGinley separately suggested he'd endure much less frustration by merely accepting his streaky similarity to Mickelson and shrugging it off.
The youngster adamantly disagreed. "I know I can play consistently at a high level," he insisted. "I know that. It's just a matter of bringing it out of myself.
"I've gone through periods where I finished in the top-five in 10 or 12 events and that's the sort of golf I want to get back to," he added. "I think that I've got the game and I'm a good enough player to give myself chances to win week in, week out."
It is this determination to draw every last drop out of his potential which drives McIlroy right now. He makes no secret of wanting to dominate the sport, saying: "I've talked about this in press conferences this year, that golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and try (to be that dominant figure).
"I want to be that person. I want to be the guy that goes on and wins Majors and wins them regularly. I'd love to be in that position," he explained.
"I've had chances before to kick on from there. I did after my second Major at Kiawah. I kicked on for another six months and played really well."
Everyone knows what happened next. McIlroy, at world No 1, propelled to an entirely new financial level in his career with a $20m endorsement deal from Nike and in love with Caroline Wozniacki, took a well-earned rest that winter, at a time he probably needed to be working harder than ever before bedding in his new clubs.
It took him more than 18 long and sometimes fraught months to get back into the winner's enclosure at a Major championship.
"I think every Major win is different," he mused, looking back at his three. "Congressional was maybe silencing the doubters and battling some of the demons I had in my own head," he said, clearly referring to his implosion on Sunday at the 2011 Masters 70 days earlier.
"Kiawah was coming off a bit of a slump in form but still having a good year," McIlroy went on. "I felt like in 2012 the only thing my year needed was a Major.
"It has been difficult at times since the start of 2013, but winning the Claret Jug makes it all worthwhile. It is maybe like Congressional because at Hoylake I had to silence a few doubters about how I could play links golf, how I could handle a lead, how I would play on a Friday."
All that talk in the lead-up to the superlative back-to-back rounds of 66 which put McIlroy four clear going into last weekend was of the harrowing Friday setbacks he endured at Augusta, Quail Hollow, Sawgrass, Memorial and the Scottish Open.
Yet there an even more impressive trend developed in McIlroy's play this spring as he showed an agreeable tendency to fight back in the face of adversity. Instead of pouting at misfortune, as he might have done in the past, he invariably soldiered on.
The most impressive of several examples of this came on Friday at Sawgrass when McIlroy dropped six shots in five holes on the front nine, then showed uncommon resilience by playing the final seven in four-under.
Since calling off his engagement to Wozniacki, intriguingly the weekend before his first victory of the year at Wentworth, McIlroy has immersed himself entirely in his sport.
His confidence and resolve were reinforced on the Wirral Peninsula by weeks of intensive practice.
He described his performance in those two 66s at The Open as "solid and steady".
The same words apply to Saturday's 68 in which he stuck resolutely to his game plan as everyone else around him reaped plenty of birdies, before pressing the throttle down the stretch and surging six clear of the field Ferrari-style with two eagles in the final three holes.
Even when peril came knocking on Sunday with back-to-back bogeys on five and six, he remained unruffled, making a great up-and down out of a bunker for par at seven before landing sweet and significant birdies at nine and 10. Never once did he seem stressed or threatened.
"Just the same as I did the first few days. I felt very, very calm inside, incredibly serene," McIlroy explained. "I knew I still had a bit of a gap, a bit of cushion and I kept just telling myself, 'hit your shots, stick to what you're doing, execute your game plan and if you can do that, then everything will be okay'."
Though he gleefully toasted the Claret Jug on Sunday night with 14 family members and friends in the house he rented close to the course, McIlroy's already looking forward to his next tournament, the World Golf Championship at Firestone on Thursday week.
As he explained on Sunday, once again "golf is what I think about when I get up in the morning and what I think of when I go to bed. I want desperately to be the best player that I can be."
Nobody, not even a fit Tiger Woods, will fancy his chances of lifting Major trophies with the new, pragmatic Rory McIlroy on the prowl.
HOW THE IRISH RATED AT HOYLAKE . . .
1 RORY McILROY
66 66 68 71 (-17)
Rory McIlroy achieved a new level at Hoylake. In victory at The Open he proved he has become as much a man of substance as style. This was a pragmatic and, for the most part, polished performance. Sublime during those 66s on Thursday and Friday, he showed patience as all around him made birdies early on Saturday, then struck brilliantly for two crucial eagles down the stretch. When the sheen went off his game on Sunday, he remained resolute, unruffled. With such discipline and focus allied to his genius, McIlroy has taken his game to a new level at the Majors.
Performance Stats – Fairways hit: 37/56, 20th. Greens in Regulation: 49/72, 25th. Total Putts: 110, 4th. Birdies: 20, 4th. Average Drives (on 5 and 16) 327.8 yds, 1st.
2 SHANE LOWRY
Finish: Tied 9th
68 75 70 65 (-10)
Shane Lowry and world No 1 Adam Scott were the only two players from the 'wrong' side of the Open draw to make it into the top-15 and ties on Sunday. Despite playing in the worst of the wind on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, Scott managed fifth and Lowry 10th, his best finish in seven Majors. The Clara native's 65 on Sunday was his equal low round of the week, while Scott was the only other player all week to match Thursday's four-under 31 on the gruelling front nine. This guy's going to win the Claret Jug some day.
Performance Stats: Fairways hit: 36/56, 28th. Greens in Regulation: 52/72, 9th. Total Putts: 115, 24th. Birdies: 21, 3rd. Average Drives (on 5 and 16) 272.6, 56th.
3 GRAEME MCDOWELL
Finish: Tied 9th
74 69 68 67 (-10)
If only ... Graeme McDowell emerged on Sunday from his third straight round in the 60s and said, "What I'd not give to go back to the 10th tee and start again from there on Thursday". G-Mac made double-bogey seven at 10 on his way to the opening 74 that left him needing it to blow a hooley to catch up. His principal complaint after that first round was his inability to hit a cut shot. On his day, however, he looks a model to add an Open title to his 2010 US Open victory on or before its return to his native Portrush in 2019, just before his 39th birthday.
Performance Stats: Fairways Hit: 39/56, 9th. Greens In Regulation: 48/72, 32nd. Total Putts: 113, 15th. Birdies: 20, 4th. Average Drives (on 5 and 16) 274.4, 52nd.
4 DARREN CLARKE
Finish: Tied 26th
72 72 67 73 (-4)
At times at Hoylake, Clarke began to look like the golfer who won at Sandwich in 2011. He revealed after Saturday's 67 that losing weight affected his swing. "If you've got 50 pounds or more sitting in front of your gut, you're going to swing a lot slower through the ball than you would otherwise. I kept leaving the club behind me. I've done a few things this week to get the club back in front of me again, so it's been better." Despite his frustrating finish, this showing was decent enough from a golfer who hasn't made the weekend in 10 of 16 events.
Performance Stats: Fairways Hit: 35/56, 35th. Greens in Regulation: 46/72, 46th. Total Putts: 117, 36th. Birdies 17, 16th. Average Drives (on 5 and 16) 271.5, 61st.
5 PAULDUNNE (AM)
75 73 (+4)
An unforgettable week began for Paul Dunne when he, Shane Lowry and (British) Amateur champion Bradley Neil were waiting to tee off at the first and Adam Scott joined them. Dunne (21), from Greystones, missed the cut by two but recovered superbly from five dropped shots on his opening five holes on Friday to post four straight birdies down the stretch for a 73 that strongly suggested he'll be back! "Going forward, this experience will be brilliant for me," said the amateur international, a student at G-Mac's Alabama alma mater UAB.
Performance Stats: Fairways Hit: 16/28, 81st. Greens in Regulation: 16/36, 142nd. Total Putts: 55, 8th. Birdies: 7, 31st. Average Drives (on 5 and 16) 266.5, 132nd.
74 78 (+8)
A desperately disappointing performance for Harrington (42) who has missed the cut in three of six Opens since winning back-to-back at Carnoustie and Birkdale, while he's broken par just twice in 18 rounds at The Open since 2008. He must win $500,000 in his next two outings in the US, next week's Reno-Tahoe Open and the following week's PGA Championship, to save his PGA Tour card. Despite recent green shoots in his game, a poor showing across the board at Hoylake suggests he'll be playing full-time on the European Tour in 2015.
Performance Stats: Fairways Hit: 12/28, 138th. Greens in Regulation: 14/36, 149th. Total Putts: 57, 31st. Birdies: 2, 150th. Average Drives (on 5 and 16) 288.5, 47th.
7 MICHAEL HOEY
Did not finish
75, withdrew injured R2
Michael Hoey was forced to limp out of the Championship after seven holes of his second round with a painful injury to his left foot that inhibited his swing and made it difficult to walk. He also has withdrawn from this week's defence of the Russian Open title in Moscow. The injury occurred on Thursday when the Ulsterman peeled a plaster off an old callus and, he explained: "The whole thing came with it ... it's very deep and very sore."
Performance Stats: Not available.