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At last – something new

For years the golfing world’s biggest story has been whether Tiger would eclipse Jack’s record 18 majors. The golf media, fearing this tale has run its course, have been desperately seeking a worthy replacement. With his Open Championship win at Royal Liverpool last Sunday, Rory McIlroy has answered their prayers.

His two previous major wins, the US Open and the PGA, have both been won by a margin of eight shots. This one, however, required the young Northern Irishman to dig deep over the final holes as the chasing pack started to close in. The manner with which he maintained composure and fluency of swing told us something we didn’t know before: he doesn’t need everything to be going his way in order for him to win. This new-found attribute – an ability to graft – will, when combined with his golfing genius, lead to more majors in the future, perhaps many more.

Only two other players have won three majors by the age of 25; Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. With McIlroy’s name being mentioned alongside such illustrious company, the world’s golfing media has found its new buzz. And so it will start… how many majors will he win, by when, and what about the grand slam etc., etc.

The Royal Liverpool’s Hoylake layout is a par-72 containing four par-fives. To McIlroy, however, it was more akin to a par-68. There was a period of play during the third round that exemplified this. By the time McIlroy reached the 12th, he was even for the day, but thanks only to his short game. His closest competitor, Ricky Fowler, playing in the group in front, was six-under and sharing the lead.

Fowler bogeyed three in a row from the 15th, while McIlroy birdied the 13th. It was shortly after this when McIlroy did what no-one else managed to do. On the par-five 16th, he drilled his drive long and straight. His second, a towering four-iron from 252 yards, finished 20 feet from the hole. He made the putt for eagle.

After a bogey on 17, he again sent a booming drive down the par-five closing hole. At this time Fowler was holing out with a birdie to finish with a 68, and within four shots of the lead. McIlroy’s second to 18 was a five-iron, absolutely flushed from 239 yards. Again it was sent high, allowing the ball a soft landing where it came to rest 11 feet from the pin. He holed the eagle putt.

In the course of six holes, McIlroy’s six-shot lead had been restored. There are some who can drive it longer than McIlroy, but not many. There may be some that can get as much height out of their long-irons, but if they exist, they didn’t show it at this Open. McIlroy’s feat of eagling both the 16th and 18th holes on his third round made a huge statement to his competitors, the watching fans and to the golfing world generally. In hindsight, it was probably this stretch that won him the tournament.

Yes, golfing fans the world over are used to watching McIlroy magic. When all the stars are aligned, we know that when he is good, he is very very good. But what happens when the doubts creep in? To where does that most fluid of swings disappear when the going gets tough? We have seen the melt-down at Augusta in 2011. We have also seen many more situations where, faced with distractions of varying kinds, the boy-wonder has either lost his cool, or his swing, or both. But not this time. Not at this Open. Not when his lead dropped from six down to two, as Sergio closed in with a brilliant last round 66.

McIlroy’s mettle has been questioned more than once, but as Jack Nicklaus noted: “The other guys put the pressure on him with what they did,” Nicklaus said. “Rory then did what he had to do. That is the measure of what you are doing. It is not to go out and shoot another 66. It’s shooting what you have to shoot to win the golf tournament. I like his swagger and I like the way he handles himself. I like his desire to be great. I like his desire to do the things he needs to do. I like that in a young guy. He’s cocky in a nice way.”

What a perfect description of Rory McIlroy – cocky in a nice way. It is so descriptive, so accurate.

So, how good could he be?

Colin Montgomerie: “I think he is eventually going to take over from Nick Faldo’s position as Britain’s greatest player,” Montgomerie said. “There’s plenty more to come. He won six majors, Nick, and I think Rory is well on his way – not just to that but the grand slam as well. He’s just got the Masters to finish off all four majors and very few people do that.”

Gary Player: “I said long ago he’ll be the next man to win a grand slam. The Masters is ideally suited to him. He has so much talent. Tiger is not finished. He is one of the most focused and is the most talented man I have ever seen, but Rory is not far behind. I expect great things from Rory. I think he will complete the grand slam in the next two years.”

There is one huge difference between McIlroy and Woods which has nothing to do with golf, but a lot to do with how they will be viewed by golfing fans. One has candour, in bucket-loads – the other has none.

The king is dead. Long live the king.


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At last – something new