History for McIlroy after leading from start to finish

First published in Sport

THIS time there was no procession, but Rory McIlroy still created more history as he held off a spirited challenge from Sergio Garcia to claim his third major title on a thrilling final day of the 143rd Open Championship.

Having won each of his previous majors by eight shots, McIlroy’s six-shot overnight lead threatened to give the last day at Royal Liverpool an air of Rory versus the record books.

But in the end it became a question of whether he could win a major when the pressure was on down the closing stretch, a question he answered emphatically to become the first European player to win three different majors since the Masters was founded in 1934.

Garcia closed within two shots of his Ryder Cup teammate on four occasions but the Spaniard –fifth here in 2006 and now with 19 top-tens in 64 majors – crucially bogeyed the 15th to release the pressure and had to settle for a closing 66.

McIlroy’s 71 gave him a 17-under-par total of 271, two ahead of a gallant Garcia and American Rickie Fowler, who birdied three of the last four holes to card a 67 and whose major record in 2014 reads fifth, second and second.

McIlroy became just the third man in the modern era after Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus to win three majors by the age of 25, while the first prize of £975,000 was not the only windfall for the McIlroy family – his father Gerry and three friends each won £50,000 after putting £100 on the then 15-year-old Rory at 500-1 a decade ago to lift the Claret Jug before his 26th birthday.

Back up to second in the world rankings, McIlroy has now completed three legs of the career Grand Slam and needs to win the Masters to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only men to have won all four majors. He famously led by four shots after 54 holes at Augusta in 2011 only to collapse to a closing 80.

“It feels incredible,” McIlroy said. “The Open is the one that we all want and strive for and to be able to hold this Claret Jug is an incredible feeling. Today wasn’t easy. There were a lot of guys making runs at me and I just needed to stay focused, keep in the present and concentrate on what I was doing out there.

“To be three legs towards the career grand slam at the age of 25 is a pretty good achievement. It’s not going to sink in for a while.”

McIlroy is the second wireto- wire winner of a major in succession after Martin Kaymer won the US Open at Pinehurst last month by eight shots, the same margin by which the Northern Irishman won the 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA Championship.

A similar procession was expected in some quarters on Sunday, not least when McIlroy smashed a drive down the middle of the first fairway and holed from 20 feet for birdie to extend his lead to seven.

However, the benign conditions were allowing the chasing pack to make a charge and it was Garcia who prospered the most, birdies on the first, third and fifth taking him to the turn in 32.

McIlroy had carded consecutive bogeys for the first time all week on the fifth and sixth and had to save par from a greenside bunker on the seventh, but also birdied the ninth to restore a fourshot cushion.

That lasted a matter of minutes though, Garcia holing from 12 feet for an eagle on the tenth to reduce the gap to just two shots, only for McIlroy to respond with a twoputt birdie on the same hole 10 minutes later.

It was Garcia’s turn to feel the pressure as he carved his approach to the 12th into the grandstand, but he was smiling seconds later as the ball rebounded out and on to the edge of the green. From there he saved par, kissed the ball and deposited it straight back into the same grandstand – albeit at a considerably slower speed than the first time.

McIlroy agonisingly left a birdie putt inches short on the same hole before hitting a dreadful tee shot on the 13th which came up well short of the green, the resulting bogey cutting his lead to two shots again.

Then came the defining moment.

With McIlroy watching back on the tee, Garcia failed to get out of a greenside bunker on the 15th at the first attempt and although he birdied the 16th, so did McIlroy.

When Garcia left a birdie attempt on the 17th tamely short, it was effecttively all over.

“The lead never got less than two,” McIlroy added.

“I always felt I had that little bit of a cushion. I knew I had some holes where I could make birdie and 16 was the real hole for me which I think settled the championship.

“This is the first major my mum (Rosie) has been to that I’ve won, so mum, this one’s for you. I just can’t wait to get back and defend this thing at St Andrews next year.”

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