Rory McIlroy won the Open Championship on Sunday because of the 6-shot lead he built up on Saturday. He only managed to shoot 1-under 71 on Sunday, but he didn’t even need to do that. Rickie Fowler (-5) and Sergio Garcia (-6) made good runs at him, but as the old saying goes, they just ran out of holes.
It wasn’t that McIlroy played poorly, it’s just that the vagaries of the game caught up to him. He came off the front even on the day and with two birdies and a bogey on the back. That was enough for a comfortable 2-shot victory, not because of what he shot, but because of how confidently he was playing. To not panic when he knew his lead was shrinking is the mark of a player who knows himself well and trusts himself more. It is the formula for patience, a key element in the ability to play with freedom.
“It feels absolutely incredible. It’s sort of cool that they put your name on [the trophy] even before you get it. So that was a nice little touch. Yeah, it’s been an incredible week. I’m happy I gave myself enough of a cushion today, because there was a lot of guys coming at me, especially Sergio and Rickie.”
“Just to be sitting here and looking at this thing and having my name on it, it’s a great feeling. It obviously hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m going to enjoy it and let it sink in tonight in the company of my friends and family.”
On of the great mysteries he stirred up on Friday was the fact that his mind was free enough that he was able to reduce his approach to playing to just two words. But he said that he would only share them on Sunday if he won. Well! The suspense became so palpable that it was the last question he was asked Saturday night and the first one Sunday night. And true to his word, he gave them up:
“Very simple. It’s going to be a big letdown for everyone. It was “process” and “spot.” That was it. With my long shots I just wanted to stick to my process and stick to making good decisions, making good swings. The process of making a good swing, if I had any sort of little swing thoughts, just keeping that so that I wasn’t thinking about the end result, basically.”
“And then “spot” was for my putting. I was just picking a spot on the green and trying to roll it over my spot, roll it over my spot every time. I wasn’t thinking about holing it. I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean or how many further clear it would get me. I just wanted to roll that ball over that spot. If that went in, then great. If it didn’t, then I’d try it the next hole. So “process” and “spot”, that’s all I kept telling myself all week.”
This has the feel of a golf “secret” and for Rory it was. But the cunning thing about golf is that its secrets are mostly personal and not universal. It is just as effective to putt while visualizing the actual line of the putt on the green — you can’t putt until you see it clearly — and then stroking the ball at the speed that keeps it on that line all the way to the hole. It’s an art form; very right-brain creative as opposed to McIlroy’s equally effective left-brain logical.
And there was a huge accomplishment in all of this as well. With three majors under his belt, he is now three-quarters of the way to the Career Grand Slam, the third youngest player to do so behind Jack and Tiger. He becomes one of only 16 players to have done so and needs only to win the Masters to become one of only six to accomplish the Slam (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods).
“Yeah, I’m immensely proud of myself. 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, yeah, I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly. Especially being someone from around here — The Open Championship was the one you really wanted growing up, and the one you holed so many putts on the putting green to win, to beat Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, whatever.”
And we find out that this was no casual accomplishment. At this level, it couldn’t have been. But it was nice to discover that McIlroy is at a place in his life where he is consumed by the game, morning, noon and night. It came up when he was asked if he had the same drive and ambition as Jack and Tiger:
“I definitely hope so. I’ve really found my passion again for golf. Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer that I can be. And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability. I’d love to win a lot more and really looking forward to — even though there’s still one major left this year that I want to desperately try and win, I looking forward to next April and trying to complete the career Grand Slam.”
And, of course, even during his “lull” last year, he never doubted that he would turn his game around and reach this kind of achievement:
“No, I never had doubts. You can’t doubt your own ability and you can’t doubt — all I had to do was look back at some of the great tournaments that I played. The ability was still there. That wasn’t it. It was just trying to find a way to make it come out again.”
“But, yeah, definitely missing the cut at Muirfield last year was a very low point. I never missed a cut at the Open before. And I really missed playing the weekend. I said to myself, I’ll try to never make that happen again. It’s been huge what a difference a year makes, I guess. But it’s turned into a great year. The win at Wentworth was huge. And obviously getting my third major is a huge step in the right direction. There’s many more tournaments and many more trophies that I want to win. I’m just going to enjoy this one right now.”
For those without the evidence of his skill that McIlroy had, there are increasingly ubiquitous spiritual teachings that God would not have put the dream in your heart unless you were capable of achieving it. That doesn’t always mean that you will, only that you can. Sometimes the efforts you make to achieve the dream are the substantive gateway to what you really should be doing. It turns out that I am a much better writer than I was a Champions Tour Monday qualifier, but I wouldn’t be the writer I am without those nine years of experiences.
McIlroy’s professed passion for the game was demonstrated by the amount of effort he put into getting enough practice on nasty-weather shots and enough practice rounds to feel “at home” at Royal Liverpool:
“I put in a lot of extra work. I practiced a lot of different shots that I might need. And for the most part this week I didn’t really need them that much. The weather was quite benign, and the wind wasn’t too strong.”
“But I prepared much better this year. I went and played four competitive rounds of links golf at the Scottish Open last week up in Aberdeen, which really helped. I came early, got a few practice rounds in. Felt very comfortable with the golf course. I played my two practice rounds ten days previous to the tournament. I played seven holes on Tuesday. And then I played 15, 16 holes on Wednesday early in the morning.”
“So I felt like my preparation was really good. And I hit some different shots that I might need for links golf. It obviously worked out pretty well. So I’ll be doing it in the future.”
So with his dominant wins in his first two majors and his thoroughly impressive win in this one, is he set to dominate the game now?
“I’ve sort of talked about this a little bit this year in press conferences, and some of the guys will have heard me say that golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try. And I said at that time I want to be that person. I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly, wins tournaments. I’d like to be — I’d love to be in that position.”
“I just want to think ahead and go forward and try and win as many tournaments and as many majors as I can, because I feel like there’s a lot more left in me.”
And after this week’s show, who could argue against him?