Rory McIlroy Reborn
The 143rd Open Championship victor from Holywood takes his place in the hall of Northern Irish sporting greats
The smile on his face said it all. As Rory McIlroy completed his final round to claim the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool by two strokes from Ricky Fowler and Sergio Garcia, the sense of relief and achievement was there for the world to see.
A year ago at Muirfield, the 25-year-old from Holywood failed to make the cut at the halfway stage of the Open and described his performance as ‘brain dead'. Talk of burn out was rife.
However, as he took the salutes of those packed around the galleries of the 18th green in the middle of July 2014, McIlroy’s body language indicated one thing – he was back among us, a professional with a will to win.
Sunday’s victory at Hoylake – where Fred Daly was the first from these shores to claim the famous Claret Jug in 1947 – gave McIlroy another major title to add to his US Open and the US PGA successes. It also gave him membership of an exclusive club. He joins Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to have won three of the sport’s majors by the age of 25.
'I'm immensely proud of myself,' said McIlroy. 'To sit here 25-years of age and win my third major championship and be three-quarters of the way to the career grand slam, I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly.'
McIlroy’s return to form suggests that it won’t be long before his name is etched on to that Grand Slam winners list alongside those of Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, and of course, Nicklaus and Woods.
That opportunity will come next April at The Masters, where he can banish all memory of his public meltdown of 2011. Going into the final round at Augusta, his four stroke lead turned into a nightmare eight-over-par 80 to finish 10 shots behind the eventual winner Charl Schwartzel of South Africa.
An older, and wiser, McIlroy is unlikely to let such slip ups occur again.
Speaking to the media after his victory at Hoylake, the new world number 2 said: 'I want be to be the guy that goes on and wins majors regularly. I feel like there's a lot more left in me. Golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and try to dominate and I want to be that person.'
His peers and idols know that, too. Jack Nicklaus who won 18 major titles, perhaps, sees something of himself in this golfing superstar. 'I like his swagger,' mused Nicklaus. '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.'
14-times major winner Tiger Woods, whose star appears to be on the wane, acknowledged that the Northern Irish man is on top of his game at the moment. 'The way Rory plays is pretty aggressively. When he gets it going, he gets it going,' observed Woods, who finished third last in the Open.
McIlroy’s standing in world sport is good for Northern Ireland. With the Open Championship due to be played at Royal Portrush from 2019 onwards, the positive publicity it brings can only benefit our tourism industry.
Alongside Ireland’s other major champions Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington, the state of the game will have aspiring champions queuing up at all our courses.
McIlroy’s achievements to date will also fuel the debate over who is our best sporting star of all time. Is he the equal of AP McCoy, who has dominated National Hunt racing for two decades? What about the ability of road racer Michael Dunlop to ride faster than anyone else? And how can we ignore the gold medal performances of sprinter Jason Smyth or middle distance runner Michael McKillop?
Add to that mix the names of George Best, Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor, Joey Dunlop and Mary Peters and there will be sufficient talking points to carry us through a few long winters.
However, McIlroy is the man of the moment, and deservedly so. He has come through some tough personal difficulties and has emerged on the other side with the belief that he can achieve so much more.
And with the Ryder Cup coming up in September, McIlroy will be first pick in Paul McGinley’s Europe team at Gleneagles. Already the US captain Tom Watson appears fearful of what to expect. Following Sunday’s Open victory, he tweeted to McIlroy: 'Take it easy on us at the Ryder Cup, OK? Enjoy the moment.'
There is no doubting that he will – as he said himself, he has fallen in love with the game again. And with that renewed optimism and ability, the man from Holywood, County Down is sure to give us all a lot more moments to enjoy in the months and years ahead.