Sport Golf

Monday 19 February 2018

Rory McIlroy's confirming his seat at the top table

Holywood's finest displays prowess with Hoylake show

Oliver Brown

It seems such a thoroughgoing certainty that Rory McIlroy will become Open champion today that the Claret Jug engraver should already be at work, so as not to repeat the notorious mistake here in 1947, when Hoylake was misspelt as 'Holylake'. Father Gerry, for all the overwhelming sense of pride, can draw extra joy from his quarter-share of a £400 bet he placed - at odds of 500-1 - on the boy phenomenon to win the Open by the time he turned 26. Rory, whose 26th birthday is not until next May, has delivered in spectacular fashion to make his dad £50,000 richer.

But McIlroy Snr might like to consider another thought: that his son could be about to become only the third 25-year-old golfer in history to hold three major titles. The other two were Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. The Holywood lad with the Hollywood game truly is touching that level of greatness. For an illustration, we needed look no further than his glorious, gasp-inducing coup de grace yesterday of two eagles in his closing three holes.

It is apt that on his path this afternoon to an all-but-inevitable coronation, he will be flanked by Rickie Fowler. For years this pair have been the two transatlantic superstars-in-waiting.There is a wonderful sepia quality to a picture of them together at the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down, where McIlroy cuts a different figure entirely by his freckled innocence and a good few inches of puppy fat, while Fowler is otherwise barely recognisable without the extravagant fashion sense. To think, seven years later at Royal Liverpool, they would bestride their sport.

McIlroy is a different man now, far better versed in experiences both chastening and enriching, but he is still the same world-beater of a player who shot 28 on the back nine at Royal Portrush as a 16-year-old. At present there is no rival fit to touch him when he discovers what he calls his "inner peace" - no one who can record nine one-putt greens in a single round under the most sapping of pressure.

Even after winning the US Open at Congressional by eight shots in 2011, McIlroy did not finish inside the top 20 at a major until he won his next one at the USPGA at Kiawah Island 14 months later. There is a blend, particular to geniuses, of the majestic and the maddening. But the prediction among all his contemporaries is that the Northern Irishman will, in his final round, only accentuate the exclamation mark upon this stunning performance.

From 16 under par, McIlroy has the look of a player with every intention of torching the records. First in his sights is the eclipse of Tiger Woods' 18-under score in 2000. Then, come tonight, even Greg Norman's record low total of 267, set at Royal St George's in 1993, could be under threat.

McIlroy would need a closing 66 to do so, but for now the overriding task is to complete the third leg of the career grand slam.

He confirmed he would not be wearing orange, to match the lurid tangerine get-up that Fowler reaches for on Sundays, in honour of the University of Oklahoma State, his alma mater. It looked at one stage as if they would be locked today in a compelling duel, with both briefly tied yesterday before McIlroy's devastating late surge.

There is nothing like an Open for separating the greats from the tour journeymen, and McIlroy is indisputably in that bracket. One wondered during his major-less season last year if he had perhaps lost his focus, or was struggling to adapt to the Nike clubs he is paid to the tune of £20m a year. It was claimed after his missed cut at Muirfield 12 months ago that he was lost, bewildered, in a slump he knew no way out of, but these three peerless rounds at Hoylake have taught us that McIlroy possesses a gift quite impossible to contain.

Even in extremis, the greatest find a way.


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