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A Third of the Four

The Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake, has been the Open Championship host when some of the game’s greatest players claimed their Claret Jug.  Among those Champions were Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Peter Thompson, Roberto Di Vincenzo and Tiger Woods who was the last player to win here in 2006.

The 143rd Open Championship was the 12th contested on these venerable links and would continue the vein of greatness in its winners.

Rory McIlroy seized the first round lead with a flawless 6-under par 66.  Getting off to a good start in events this season has been the norm for McIlroy, but he has struggled to continue that in the subsequent rounds.  Particularly in the second round, as evidenced by his second round scoring average of almost 73 in contrast to a Tour best 68, that he begins with. That 5 stroke difference has become somewhat of a yoke around his neck as not only is he continually asked about it, but it is something that he has admitted being very conscious of.

Friday would bring another virtuoso performance from the lad from Holywood in County Down.  McIlroy’s second round daemons were firmly expelled as he fashioned another 66 and a 4 shot advantage over his nearest pursuer, Dustin Johnson.   The long hitting Johnson bettered McIlroy’s score by one as he recorded the day’s best of 65 to be 8-under for the Championship.

As is the case with most links golf courses, Hoylake is defended against low scoring by Mother Nature.  While there was some wind in the afternoon of Day 1 and the morning of Day 2, they were tame by Mersey-side standards.  The course rests on the western edge of the Wirral, a promontory between the Rivers Mersey and Dee whose prevailing winds arrive from the South West, often in gale like gusts.

Forecast turbulence for Saturday’s third round prompted officials to move the starting times to earlier in the morning and to tee players off from both the first and tenth tees to avoid unplayable conditions.  Those predictions never materialized however and the players were greeted by a thin mist of rain rather than squalls and a course that became even more benign.

A torrid early pace was set by 26 year old American, Rickie Fowler, who blazed through his opening dozen holes to be 6-under for the day and tied with McIlroy at 12-under for the Championship.  The last 6 holes would showcase how quickly things can change.  Fowler was slowed by three bogies in that stretch before finishing with a birdie-4 on the 18th hole and a 3-day total of 10-under par.

McIlroy holed a long putt for a birdie-3 on the 13th before authoring two of the most supremely played holes in memory with stunning eagle-3’s on both the par-5 16th and 18th holes.  At 16-under par, McIlroy was once again in complete command and carried a 6-shot lead into Sunday.

Sergio Garcia, who has come so close to winning the oldest Major so many occasions, shot a third consecutive 3-under par 69 to be a stroke behind Fowler and tied with Johnson who had kept himself in contention with a 1-under par 71.

And it was Garcia who would first challenge McIlroy on Sunday with birdies in three of his first five holes.  After making a birdie to start his round, McIlroy stumbled with bogies on the 5th and 6th to see his lead to shrink to three over Garcia.  When the Spanish star made an eagle-3 on the 10th hole,  McIlroy was making a birdie-2 a hole behind on the 9th reducing the margin to two.

McIlroy shaped two beautiful shots onto the green of the par-5 10th and two-putted for a birdie to increase his cushion to three once more where it remained for the next several holes.  Fowler was also now playing himself in the mix converting one clutch putt after another to join Garcia in second place after all three players birdied the down-wind 16th.

Three ahead with just two holes to play however, meant that the Northern Irishman would have to do something to beat himself and although young in years, he has a game with the wisdom of the ages.  McIlroy safely navigated the difficult 17th and the awkward closing hole (which has an out of bounds line that intersects the middle of its fairway) with irons off each tee and safe approach shots to par both, clinching a two shot triumph.

Garcia and Fowler tied for second place at 15-under for the Championship which were impressive performances by both men whose time must surely come in the Majors.  It was Fowler’s second consecutive runner-up in a Major after his strong showing behind Martin Kaymer in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

At 25, McIlroy became the third youngest player in the modern era (after 1934) to win his third Major following only Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24).  The Open is the 3rd leg of the Grand Slam (winning all four Major Championships) following his wins in the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship.  McIlroy becomes the first European player ever to win three of the four legs of the Grand Slam and there are only 7 players in history who have accomplished that.

The pure joy of victory was obvious to all as McIlroy stared in wonder at the Claret Jug and his newly inscribed name after the winning ceremony.  It was with an equal sense of awe that we witnessed greatness in the making over the last four days.