It's been the rockiest 22 months of Rory McIlroy's young life. There was an engagement, a breakup, a never-ending series of pratfalls and collapses that rocked his reputation as the rightful heir to Tiger Woods' throne.
All those concerns washed away with one four-day reminder of why McIlroy received such hype in the first place.
The Northern Irishman shot a one-under 71 on Sunday, finishing at 17-under overall to win the 2014 Open Championship by two strokes.
Entering with a six-stroke lead over the field, McIlroy went from world-beater to caretaker over his final 18 holes. No golfer ever got closer than within two strokes the entire day, and he held his composure despite occasional struggles off the tee and on the greens. He carded three bogeys to go against his four birdies in his most inconsistent round of the event.
Among players who finished in the top 10, only McIlroy and Victor Dubuisson did not score in the 60s.
He nonetheless came within two strokes of tying Woods' record low at a major and became the seventh wire-to-wire winner in Open Championship history. He's the first to do so since Woods in 2005.
The win was McIlroy's first on the PGA Tour since the 2012 BMW Championship. He went winless the entire 2013 campaign, dropping from his former perch as the world No. 1 to all the way outside the top 10 at one point earlier this year. A win at the BMW PGA Championship in Europe and a string of other solid finishes got the ball rolling, but he needed a round like Sunday to prove he's back among the world's best.
While many expected the fourth round to feel like a formality, the excellence of Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler added a level of intrigue.
Fowler outplayed McIlroy the entire day and came into his own down the stretch, birdieing three of his final four holes to shoot a five-under 67. He has finished in the top five in each of 2014's majors, including back-to-back second-place outings. At age 25, there is evidence that Fowler's on-course stylings are becoming as notable as his outfits. Perhaps we're finally seeing the former top-ranked amateur reaching his potential.
Garcia, meanwhile, settles for his fourth second-place finish at a major. Long derided for his inability to get the job done when it counts, the Spaniard turned in one of his finest fourth rounds at a major championship Sunday. He was putting the most pressure on McIlroy throughout the day, moving within two strokes following an eagle on No. 10 and never wavering.
The only mistake of Garcia's day was on the par-three 15th. After hitting his tee shot into the greenside bunker, Garcia mishit his approach and the ball rolled back to within feet of its original landing spot. The result was his only bogey in a six-under day. At this point in his career, the 34-year-old Garcia has to be wondering what he'll have to do to stop being a runner-up.
Those are usually the breaks when playing against McIlroy when he's at the top of his game. Few would dispute that he's been the most talented player on tour for a couple years. But mental lapses and a personality with predilections toward self-implosion have held him back. Kissing the Claret Jug might be a sign we're in store for a mature McIlroy going forward.
On the other side of the coin was Woods, who concluded a miserable tournament in near-obscurity. The former world No. 1 shot a three-over 75, his third straight round over par after a promising three-under start Thursday. In two events since returning from back surgery, Woods has been cut and finished alone in 69th. Royal Liverpool, which hosted a Woods win in 2006, is now the home of his worst-ever post-cut outcome in a major.
"I got four rounds in," Woods told reporters. "Unfortunately I didn't play very well today. It was a little different than it was on the first day, obviously. But, again, I just made too many mistakes. I had two triples, two doubles."
Woods is winless in his last 19 majors. He'll have another opportunity to add to his trophy case in next month's PGA Championship, which will be hosted at Valhalla Golf Club. The 38-year-old won his second PGA Championship at Valhalla in 2000.
Scott Kacsmar shared his reaction to the swing in momentum:
Phil Mickelson had a week that was in many ways the opposite of Woods. His opening-round 74 was followed by three straight below par, including a solid closeout 68 on Sunday. The defending Open champion has not won an event since his comeback triumph at Muirfield last year. He has, however, made four straight cuts for the first time all season.
"It was a good solid round," Mickelson told reporters. "It was actually a good day for me to kind of get a little bit of confidence, and know that I can get the scores out of it that I feel I deserve and not have to press heading into Akron [WGC-Bridgestone Invitational] and the PGA."
But Merseyside was not kind to the legends of golf's past. It arguably gave the world a glimpse at its future. McIlroy and Fowler are headed for the prime of their careers. Adam Scott, the world's top-ranked golfer, continued his reign of brilliant consistency with a tie for fifth. He's finished 15th or better in 10 of the last 11 major championships.
Others like Charl Schwartzel and Marc Leishman got their chance to shine. Even Garcia, despite a decade-and-a-half of relevance, is not "old" for golf.
The 2014 Open Championship might wind up marking the dawning of a new era. And it's one where everyone is chasing at the heels of Rory McIlroy.
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