HOYLAKE, England >> The celebration began long before Rory McIlroy had a chance to drink out of the claret jug.
McIlroy was upstairs in the clubhouse at Royal Liverpool for the traditional toast with the R&A, unable to ignore the chants below from club members waiting for a glimpse of the British Open champion.
“Rory! Rory! Rory!”
It was a raucous scene for a club that starts with “Royal,” but such is the personality of Liverpool. The members booed anyone who came down the stairs who did not have curly brown hair, freckles and a claret jug. And their cheers shook the brick clubhouse when Boy Wonder finally descended with the oldest trophy in golf.
The scene was so much different a year ago.
McIlroy stood on a podium in a makeshift tent outside Muirfield, speaking to reporters with a vacant look in those brown eyes. He had just opened with a 79, his worst start ever in a major in what was shaping up as a year to forget. He had no idea what was wrong with him or his game.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there and I’m unconscious,” he said that day. “I just need to try to think more. I’m trying to focus and trying to concentrate, but, yeah, I can’t really fathom it at the minute.
“I’m definitely underthinking on the golf course. Maybe overthinking off it.”
He looked lost.
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Now he looks like the best player in golf. And odds are, the worst of times might lead to the best.
If he felt unconscious on the golf course a year ago, he looked unconscious at times at Royal Liverpool. His golf was simply explosive on Friday afternoon with two bursts of birdies, and plenty of chances in between, on his way to a 66. The defining moment of this championship was Saturday, when McIlroy went from a share of the lead to six shots clear in just over an hour. He made eagle on two of the last three holes with two mammoth drives, two pretty swings and two perfect putts.
Nothing came easily to McIlroy over the last 18 months.
He was criticized for swapping out equipment when he signed a megadeal with Nike. He showed his age when he quit in the middle of the Honda Classic and initially blamed it on a sore wisdom tooth. He changed agents for the second time, and lawsuits followed that are still to be decided in court. He got engaged to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki to start the new year, then broke it off with a telephone call in May.
And there he was on Sunday, introduced as the “champion golfer of the year,” his name etched in silver, his eyes gazing at all the names on that claret jug.
Asked for a low point during his struggles, McIlroy didn’t hesitate.
“This time last year,” he said.
Through it all, the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland never doubted he could return. He won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship by eight shots. That wasn’t an accident. He won the money title on both sides of the Atlantic. There was never a question of his skill.
“It was just trying to find a way to make it come out again,” McIlroy said. “But yeah, definitely, missing the cut at Muirfield last year was a very low point. I never missed a cut at The Open before. I said to myself, ‘I’ll try to never make that happen again.’ It’s been huge what a difference a year makes. But it’s turned into a great year.”
And the tough times should only lead to better times.
Tom Watson knows that as well as anyone. He flopped badly in his first couple of shots at a major until he won the Open at Carnoustie in 1975, the first of eight majors and a career that ranks among the best. He played the British Open for the 37th time. Watson has seen a lot in his career, and failure piques his interest as much as success.
“He’s gone through a struggle with his golf game over a period of time,” Watson said of McIlroy. “And now it seems like he’s got it back. And you learn a lot from your failures. And he’ll come back stronger if you fail. I know it was a burden on him. The frustration was there with him. All golfers feel the same frustration. You’ve gone through the low spells. You’ve gone through the times where you couldn’t break an egg.
“And then finally, all of a sudden, the light switch will turn on … and it gets easy. That’s what happened to me many times in my career. And it seems like it’s happened to Rory.”
Where does McIlroy go from here? He has moved to No. 2 in the world behind Adam Scott. Even though the PGA Championship is three weeks away, his eyes already are looking ahead to Augusta National in April, a shot at the Masters to become only the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
“When he’s in rhythm, he’s phenomenal,” Scott said. “He doesn’t have weaknesses and he has more strengths than most anyone else. When he’s in rhythm, you’ll see him shoot low numbers all the time.”