By Fergus Bisset
At just 25 years of age, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy is a three-time Major champion. He’s now only a Masters victory away from completing a career “Grand Slam” and joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to have achieved that remarkable feat.
McIlroy’s superb victory at Hoylake could be pivotal in his career. It may just be the moment of his graduation from supremely talented, and occasionally brilliant, wunderkind to dominant champion.
A great deal has happened to McIlroy since he last stood in the winner’s circle at a Major at the 2012 USPGA Championship. He switched equipment sponsors in a multi-million pound deal then split from his management group. As the dispute between them headed towards the courts, his form dipped and he faced criticism from the press. The disapproving voices grew louder when he became engaged to tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki then broke up with her just as the wedding invitations were due to go out. In short, it’s been a turbulent couple of years.
But he’s resilient and perhaps now, after being exposed to the potential pitfalls of sporting super-stardom, he’s more mature. On the links at Royal Liverpool, Rory got back to doing what he does best – producing sensational golf of a quality that nobody on the planet can currently match.
The last three Open champions – Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson – have all been over 40. This year, two 25-year-olds battled it out in the final group in a duel that illustrated the future of the game. Laid-back Californian Rickie Fowler finished tied fifth this year at Augusta, tied second in the U.S. Open and now, tied second at Hoylake. He’s the real deal and clearly steps up in the big events. Surely he’s a future Major champion.
That’s been said before however. Consider Sergio Garcia. When, at just 19, the Spaniard finished second to Tiger Woods in the 1999 USPGA, he was earmarked as a, probable, multiple-Major winner. 15 years later, it’s yet to happen. He played brilliantly at Royal Liverpool, producing four outstanding rounds that, on another week, might have seen him lift the Claret Jug. But not for the first time in his career, Sergio came up against a virtuoso and had to settle for second best.
It wasn’t all about the youngsters. 44-year-old Jim Furyk equaled his best Open result, ending the week alone in fourth. And what about the old maestro Tom Watson? He’ll be 65 by the time he captains the U.S. Ryder Cup side at Gleneagles this September, but he still has the game to show the youngsters a few tricks. He closed with a 68 to finish in a tie for 51st, beating the likes of Jason Day, Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer and a certain Tiger Woods.
The former World Number 1 was clearly not match-fit and his rustiness showed as he struggled to make the cut then laboured through the weekend. We haven’t seen the last of the Tiger, but he needs to do some serious work on his game, particularly his errant driving, if he’s to challenge again at the very highest level.
32 Brits teed it up at the start of the week and 12 made it to the weekend. The eventual winner was a Brit and five more finished in the top-25. Are there any other international sports where Britain enjoys such success? In a word: no. With six Major wins since 2010, surely it’s time that Britain’s golfers gained a little more recognition. Why are the back pages crammed with footballing failures when they could be celebrating golfing glories? … Just a thought.