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Open & shut

McIlroy holds off Garcia and Fowler to cap a wire-to-wire win at Royal Liverpool

By New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:47 a.m. HST, Jul 21, 2014


McIlroy holds off Garcia and Fowler to cap a wire-to-wire win at Royal LiverpoolHOYLAKE, England >> By the standards of final British Open chapters, this was no major thriller, but it was not the relaxed Sunday stroll around Royal Liverpool that it might have been for Rory McIlroy.

His lead, as imposing as seven strokes in the early stages of the fourth round, was down to two with five holes to play. It was still only two when he knocked his final approach shot of the tournament into an awkward spot in a greenside bunker at the 18th hole.

But McIlroy, the prodigy from Northern Ireland who once cracked under final-round pressure at Augusta National, bent without breaking in this championship venue much closer to his roots.

"The Open is the one that we all want, the one we all strive for," McIlroy said in his post-victory remarks, which were warmly received by the predominantly Liverpudlian crowd until he mentioned that he was a Manchester United fan.

BRITISH OPEN
At a glance

>> Winner: Rory McIlroy won the claret jug for the first time with a 1-under 71 and 17-under 271 total.
>> Runners-up: Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler finished two shots behind. For Garcia, it was the fourth runner-up finish in a major without winning one. Fowler also tied for second behind Martin Kaymer at last month's U.S. Open.

That brave comment was in keeping with his bold performance. Still just 25, he won his first British Open by breaking par in every round, finishing with a

17-under-par total of 271. He led from start to finish and won by piling up birdies and eagles on the course's par-5s, playing with brio when it was possible and with caution when it was required. He won with his deft short game as well as his long driving, holding off a robust final-round challenge from Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler, who finished in a tie for second at 15 under.

Garcia, playing in the penultimate group, shot a 66. Fowler, who also finished in a tie for second at the U.S. Open, shot a 67 while playing in the final pairing with McIlroy, often chatting and joking with him.

McIlroy could do no better than a 71 on the par-72 course, but that was enough for him to secure the claret jug.

"I'm happy I gave myself enough of a cushion today because there were a lot of guys coming at me, especially Sergio and Rickie," McIlroy said.

His victory put the accent back on youth at a tournament won the previous three years by men in their 40s: Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. This year, the closest the 40-somethings got to the jug was the fourth-place finish of Jim Furyk, who was 13 under at 44.

McIlroy is the third-youngest man to win three of the four major tournaments. The youngest were Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who also happen to have won more majors than any other men.

Nicklaus, long retired from tour-level golf, has 18 titles. Woods, who won the last Open staged at Royal Liverpool, in 2006, remains at 14 after struggling at this tournament. He was 18 under at Hoylake in 2006. He finished at 6 over this year, his closing 75 leaving him 23 strokes behind the winner.

McIlroy may never match the breadth and depth of Nicklaus' and Woods' achievements; this is an era brimming with global talent in which domination has proved elusive. But McIlroy made his intentions clear on Sunday.

"Golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try," he said. "I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors, and wins majors regularly."

He was a flickering flame Sunday, which he began with a six-shot lead over Fowler after a crescendo finish on Saturday, punctuated by eagles on Nos. 16 and 18.

McIlroy won his first major title, at the 2011 U.S. Open, by eight strokes and his second, at the 2012 PGA Championship, by the same margin. This was a much more nerve-racking experience and perhaps a more revealing test of his character.

After a birdie on the opening hole, McIlroy led by seven strokes. But Garcia gradually narrowed the gap.

Through six holes, he had cut McIlroy's lead to three shots. Through 13 holes, he had cut it to two, making an eagle on No. 10 and then getting a lucky bounce on No. 12 when his approach shot ricocheted off a grandstand and ended up on the edge of the green. After making par, Garcia kissed the ball and tossed it back to the fans.

But after hitting into a bunker on the par-3 15th, Garcia failed to get out of the sand on his first attempt. He ended up with a bogey, which gave McIlroy breathing room heading into the final holes.

It was yet another near miss in a major for Garcia, 34, who has yet to win one. McIlroy, nine years younger, now lacks only the Masters to complete his collection. In 2011, he had a four-shot lead at Augusta after three rounds before collapsing with a final-round 80.

He was a golfer caught in the headlights that day, but he has since proved that he can manage a lead when it matters most. After consecutive bogeys on Nos. 5 and 6 on Sunday, he got up and down from a bunker to make par on No. 7. At the 11th hole, he sank a tricky 6-foot putt for par. At the 17th, he chipped out of the semi-rough to within a foot to make par. At No. 18, he made it out of the greenside bunker in style and, after a two putt, was soon hugging his mother on the green.

He also faced down a distraction at the 16th: After hitting his tee shot, McIlroy turned and pointed with his club toward a heckler in the gallery, who was eventually escorted away.

McIlroy said the man had been heckling him all day and "deliberately coughed on my downswing" at the 16th tee.

"I knew who it was, so I turned around and got him chucked out, thankfully," McIlroy said.

McIlroy is clearly a better and more resilient player at this stage of his career, if not yet a consistently brilliant one.

"The way he plays is pretty aggressively," Woods said on Sunday. "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."

It has been a year of plot twists and U-turns. Last July at Muirfield, McIlroy failed to make the cut at the British Open. In May, he broke off his engagement to Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki (who also won a tournament Sunday, in Istanbul). It is unclear what effect that decision had on McIlroy privately, but it certainly has not hurt his golf game.

Shortly after he announced their breakup, he won the prestigious BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. Now, he has the fourth-lowest British Open score in relation to par since 1963.

Royal Liverpool is a special place for golfers from Northern Ireland. Fred Daly won there in 1947, becoming the first golfer from Northern Ireland to win a major. Now it should be an even more iconic spot for McIlroy's compatriots.

That includes his father, Gerry, and some of his father's friends, who reportedly made a wager when McIlroy was still a teenager that he would win the Open within 10 years. Ladbrokes, a British-based gambling company, confirmed in a Twitter post that it would be paying out 180,000 pounds (about $310,000) to them.

By the start of play on Sunday, it was clear that the odds were very much in the McIlroys' favor, and Fowler, Rory McIlroy's friendly rival, is convinced the Masters is next.

"It's hard to say that there really is any course that doesn't suit him when he's on his game, and I've seen him play very well there," Fowler said. "It's just a matter of time."

Christopher Clarey, New York Times






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