Rory McIlroy is the 2014 Open Champion. He held off a stiff challenge by Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler to take the title at Royal Liverpool Hoylake by two strokes.
At 6.14 p.m. on Sunday 20th July 2014, only two men in the history of golf had won three Major Championships by the age of 25. They were the two most successful golfers of all time – Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
At 6.15 p.m. Rory McIlroy tapped in a one-foot putt for par on the 18th green at Royal Liverpool Hoylake, and that number rose to three. McIlroy has added The Open to his US Open and PGA titles, and now needs only the Masters to complete the set. It is a remarkable achievement by the young Irishman, at a time when competition at golf's highest level is tighter than ever before. With Tiger's game in undeniable if not necessarily irreversible decline, it is now clear that McIlroy is the man that the others need to beat.
This win was far from easy. As with Round 3, the day was full of suspense to the very last hole. Credit must go principally to Spain's Sergio Garcia for ensuring that this was no procession. But as McIlroy stood on the second tee, few would have predicted how tight things would get.
He had just birdied the first hole, and with his playing partner Rickie Fowler making par, Rory had extended his lead to an apparently unassailable seven strokes. Seven strokes ahead, seventeen holes to play until he could raise the Claret Jug in triumph.
Garcia too had birdied the first, joining Fowler on ten-under. Even so, the gap looked insurmountable. But Sergio had other ideas. He birdied 3 and 5 as well, and began to put just a little pressure on Rory.
Rory played the par-5 fifth badly. It started well enough when he went with the driver and played a beauty, straight up the middle. Unfortunately it was too good. It carried through the dogleg and into the light rough. The TV spotters reported that he had a beauty of a lie though, sitting up on a tuft as if on a tee. Unfortunately that was too good too. Rory mis-hit it, and it swerved away right and up against the grandstand. A free drop followed, but into a thick-rough dropping zone. He overcooked his chip across the green, and took three to get down. A bad bogey on what would have looked like a birdie opportunity as his drive sailed greenwards.
Then he bogeyed 6 as well, and the lead was shrinking. When Garcia eagled 10, he was five-under for the round, and the lead was down to two strokes. But that was enough for Rory. Back-to-back birdies on 9 and 10 restored a little breathing space.
Sergio kept on fighting. A putt from off the green lipped out on 11, and that led to a stretch of four straight pars.
Sadly, as with Round 3, it was over the closing holes that his challenge began to falter. The par-3 15th – at only around 160 yards the shortest hole on the course – proved fatal to his chances. You could tell as soon as he had struck his tee shot that there was a problem. He leaned left, as all golfers do when they have pushed their shot, trying to will the ball back towards the target. But it has never worked yet and it never will. Sergio's ball finished in the bunker, close to the steep face. And his fans groaned in despair when he failed to get out at the first attempt. Trying to finesse the ball towards the hole he took too much sand – TV replays showed the ball was in fact already descending when it hit the bunker.
His second shot was even closer to an even higher face. This time he hit it to perfection, leaving it a few inches from the hole. But the dropped shot was a killer. Garcia birdied 16, and gave himself birdie and eagle chances on 17 and 18, but could convert neither. Fifteen-under was the best he could do. In spite of a bogey on 13, a birdie on 16 meant that the two-shot margin would prove enough for McIlroy.
Garcia is now the undisputed holder of one of the most unwanted mantles in golf – the best player on the Tour never to have won a Major. He would hardly be human if he did not look back in despair at every mistake he made over the four days - and principally at that bunker shot, and the tiny putt he missed on 14 in Round 3 – and think of what might have been.
Sergio made no excuses. "Two shots was the closest," he said. "But it was difficult. It's difficult when you're in a situation where you know you can't make a mistake. It just adds that little extra pressure."
Asked whether he thought he had "made McIlroy win it", he answered: "I think both Rickie and I, I think we tried to push him as hard as we could. But there are so many things that have to go right for you to be able to get as close. I needed to shoot at least 8 or 9-under – even then he probably hits driver on the last; he hits it good, he makes birdie. I think that we gave it our best effort, and there was someone out there who was a little bit better."
That someone was delighted with his success. "I'm immensely proud of myself," said McIlroy. "To sit here at 25 years of age and win my third Major Championship and be three-quarters of my way to a career Grand Slam? Yeah, I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly. Especially being someone from around here – The Open was the one you really wanted to win growing up, and the one you were winning when you holed all these putts on the practice green. It hasn't really sunk in yet. The more I keep looking at this trophy and seeing my name on it, the better it will feel..."
So will Rory complete that career Grand Slam, and if so when? There are no easy Majors, but most golf enthusiasts – fans and media experts alike - would give the same two answers: "Definitely", and "Soon".