“The Champion Golfer of the Year.” That’s how the British Open winner is introduced by the head of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, Peter Dawson.
Not merely the Open champion. Not just the player who overwhelmed historic Royal Liverpool. Not only the man who finished ahead of Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler and everyone else.
But “The Champion Golfer of the Year.”
And with Nicklaus and Woods, arguably the two finest in history, one of a trio to have won three major golfing championships by age 25.
Which puts McIlroy in a special place, but also under a lot of pressure.
He is the new king of golf, the newest face of a game that, through the decades, has been represented by Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods.
It wasn’t the easiest of final rounds Sunday for McIlroy, who shot a one-under 71 for a 17-under 271 after starting with a six-shot margin that was eventually reduced to two strokes. Tying for second at 273 were Garcia (66) and Fowler (67).
Yet in adding the 143rd Open to his major victories along with the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, McIlroy never lost the lead or control. He grabbed the tournament lead in the first round, shooting 66, and wouldn’t let go.
The possibility is with his skill, looks, engaging style and perspective—“Even though I’m a Manchester United supporter,” he told a crowd understandably heavy with Liverpool fans, “you gave me great support”—golf may not let go of McIlroy.
Individual sports, golf and tennis, need personalities. They need stars who transcend the boredom of smashing a ball across a net or down a fairway, who are recognizable, somewhat accessible and appear to be enjoying the attention as much as those giving it to them.
McIlroy meets the obligations. He’s a natural from a town in Northern Ireland spelled “Holywood,” but pronounced “Hollywood.” Lights, camera, reaction.
When the U.S. Open was played in Philadelphia last year, McIlroy, in a Phillies jersey, ran up the steps to the Museum of Art, raising his hands, just like Rocky. Although brought up on soccer (their football), when McIlroy played in the Masters, he bought one of our footballs and tried throwing passes.
His failed engagement with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, after they had dated for more than two years, put some people off. But love presents problems that are more complex than merely making a change in your putting stance.
McIlroy grew up in public—he was famous by the time he was 15, winning events against adults at his home course—and his mistakes were there for all to see. He dropped out of the 2014 Honda Classic, claiming he had wisdom tooth troubles, and was hammered in the media. The impressive thing is, he took the blame.
He’s not Tiger Woods, and that can be both a blessing and a curse. Tiger had all the elements going for him and came along when golf was in need of a magical figure, especially an American, who could bomb drives and win majors.
McIlroy may be less charismatic than Woods, but he’s also less threatening. Tiger knew it all. Rory acts as if he’s still learning. The naivete seems genuine.
“It feels incredible,” he said of the win. “It’s sort of cool they put your name on (the trophy) even before you get it. So that’s a nice touch.”
If not an unusual one, because the procedure has been followed for years. Still, it’s the first time “Rory McIlroy” has been engraved on the Claret Jug, if not the first it’s been engraved into memory.
“I’m happy I gave myself enough of a cushion,” said McIlroy, the first wire-to-wire winner since Woods in 2005, “because there were a lot of guys coming at me, especially Sergio and Rickie. Just to be sitting here and looking at the thing and having my name on it, it’s a great feeling.”
The golf community also has to be feeling pretty great. It has a tousle-haired young man who plays and resides on both sides of the Atlantic, a young man never afraid to go for the green or to give an interview.
“Yeah,” he confided, “I’m immensely proud of myself. To sit here at 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 at being at this point in my career so quickly.”
He doesn’t have to dream. He’s arrived. He’s “The Champion Golfer of the Year.”
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.