It’s difficult to pin down the most important factor in Rory McIlroy’s 2-stroke victory at the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on Sunday, July 20. Was it opening with a pair of 66s to carry a 4-stroke lead into the weekend? Was it favorable tee time draws on Thursday and Friday that saw him playing in the best weather for the first two rounds? Or was it a blitzing three-hole finish on Saturday, which boosted his lead to 6 strokes?
As in almost any golf tournament, it was a combination of all those factors that led the 25-year-old Ulsterman to the title of “Champion Golfer of the Year” for 2014, but in the final examination it was his jump on the field by dint of a pair of six-under rounds that made all the difference. His opening round of 66 was the lowest on the day on Thursday, and his Friday 66 was bettered only by Dustin Johnson’s lone 65, and matched by just one other player, Frenchman Victor Dubuisson.
That blazing start, and resultant six-stroke lead over his closest pursuer, meant that the remainder of the field was in his shadow and playing catch-up on Saturday, which turned out to be the only day on which play was significantly affected by the weather. A prediction of thunderstorms, rare in Great Britain at this time of year, led the R & A, the governing body for golf in the United Kingdom, to take the unprecedented step of setting a two-tee start. With the field split into two groups of threesomes, one group started their round on the first hole and the other on the tenth hole.
The expected electrical storms never appeared, though a drenching rain plagued the earlier starting times. By the time that McIlroy and his nearest pursuers were teeing off, however, the rain had stopped and the weather was quite benign.
Dustin Johnson, who was four strokes back of McIlroy as Saturday’s round commenced, couldn’t maintain the torrid pace he had set on Friday, when his seven-under 65 was the low round of the day. The long-hitting Carolinian missed several birdie opportunities due to mediocre putting, and had a run of three straight bogeys at the end of his first nine holes, closing out the day with a slightly above average 71 to fall to 7 strokes behind McIlroy.
Rickie Fowler, who finished a distant second to Germany’s Martin Kaymer in last month’s U.S. Open, matched McIlroy’s third-round 68, maintaining the six-stroke deficit he had started the day with, but the day’s final score doesn’t tell the whole story. The 2009 Oklahoma State University graduate, who is known for wearing OSU’s orange and black team colors on tournament Sundays, pulled even with McIlroy at the 10th hole, capping his 3-under front nine with a birdie at the 10th to make up the deficit.
Fowler pulled ahead of McIlroy after the 12th hole, which he birdied to McIlroy’s bogey. Bogeys on the 14th, 16th and 17th holes dropped Fowler back as a hard-charging McIlroy closed out his round from the 14th hole on with birdie-par-eagle-bogey-eagle, recovering his four-stroke lead over Fowler as both posted four-under 68s.
During Sunday’s final round it was a steady-playing Sergio Garcia who seemed best positioned to upset the apple cart for McIlroy as the youngster from Holywood made his bid to claim a third leg of the career Grand Slam. Garcia has been playing some of the best golf of his career in the past year or so, having overcome the putting foibles which have plagued him for several years.
Garcia alternated birdies and pars for the first five holes of the front side, parring holes six through 10 to go out in three-under 32. McIlroy, playing immediately behind Garcia and Dustin Johnson, opened and closed his front side with birdies, but a pair of bogeys, on holes five and six, negated those efforts, turning his front nine into an even-par wash.
Johnson couldn’t seem to get anything going in Sunday’s final round, and never posed much of a threat to McIlroy’s bid for the Claret Jug. Garcia bid fair to at least make a run at it as he opened the final nine by making a one-stroke jump on McIlroy, draining a 12-foot eagle putt on the 10th hole moments after the Irishman made birdie behind him at the ninth.
Garcia pulled within two of the lead in the middle of the back nine when McIlroy bogeyed the par-3 thirteenth hole, but the Spaniard’s deficit returned to three when he did the same at the fifteenth. Electing to get all he could, and a bit more, out of a wedge at the 161-yard par-3 when an easier swing with one club up might have been a better decision, Garcia pushed his tee shot into a right-front bunker.
In a shocking development for a player with such a strong short game, Garcia’s first attempt to get out of the bunker hit the tall, revetted face and fell back. He made an excellent out on his second try and drained the resulting putt, but the slipup had taken back one of the hard-earned strokes he had made up on his opponent McIlroy.
Garcia must have felt that his chances for prising the Claret Jug from the near-certain grasp of the young man from Holywood to be slipping away with three holes left. Both men birdied the par-five sixteenth, and time was running out for Garcia to make good on his run at the title, and with a par at the 17th, he came to the 18th needing an eagle and a McIlroy bogey to even get into a playoff. The Spaniard was on in two at eighteen, and had a chance at eagle, but narrowly missed the putt to take back two strokes, settling for a birdie to finish in 273, tying Rickie Fowler for second place.
McIlroy played the final hole conservatively, with an iron off the tee and another long iron shot to the green. The second shot was a riskier move than it looked, as he was—despite his risk-averse tee shot—placing himself in danger of catching one of the guardian bunkers fronting the green with the long-iron second. He did exactly that, but a clean out from the right-front bunker left him with three putts to win from abut twelve feet. It only took him two, so despite a less than picture-perfect closing hole, the young man from a small seaside community in Ulster became only the third Northern Irishman, after Fred Daly in 1947 and Darren Clarke just three years ago, in 2011, to hoist the Claret Jug as Champion Golfer of the Year.
In the end it was McIlroy’s fast start that proved the most difficult obstacle for his opponents to overcome. The 12-time Open venue south of Liverpool was laid bare to the predations of well-tuned professional golfers and the best modern technology by the almost total lack of wind, and what weather did occur served only to soften the greens and make the course that much easier. The course played to a stroke average of one-under par 71 by the 72 players who made the cut, and despite a finish that was only average—in fact, exactly average—the best efforts of a field comprised of the best men in the game failed, in the end, to catch the fast-starting young Irishman from Holywood.