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Rory McIlroy maintains a steady hand to grab first British Open title

ColumnGolfRory McIlroySergio GarciaRickie FowlerBritish Open
Ahead by six shots at start of day, Rory McIlroy stays calm to withstand rivals' charges and win British Open
Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, claims his third Grand Slam event title and first at his 'home' major
Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler make things interesting in final round but finish two shots behind McIlroy

On Saturday, Rory McIlroy was Mr. Sensational. On Sunday, he was Mr. Steady. Each Rory was perfectly timed.

McIlroy is the new British Open champion. He is 25, a prodigy from Northern Ireland who once shot 61 when he was 16. Lots of people knew then, and the world does now.

McIlroy winning a major title is not a stunner. This was his third, a level of achievement reached by age 25 only by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods before him. That is fast company, but after his performance here at Royal Liverpool, he has earned his inclusion.

This one had the special feel of being achieved under the pressure of hearth and home. If you are from the United Kingdom, as McIlroy is, major titles are special, but the Open Championship is the ultimate.

Now, the ultimate golfing talent has given golf fans here exactly that. This was the 143rd time they have played this tournament, and you get the feeling that this won't be the only time McIlroy will hoist the beloved Claret Jug. Not to mention other Grand Slam tournament hardware.

McIlroy was in firm control of this one, just as he had been in winning the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship. And he was fully aware of what lies ahead, even speaking to it after Saturday's round.

"If I win here," he said, "there will be lots of hype before next year's Masters."

That's because, not all that long after he is able to legally drink a beer in the U.S., he will have a chance at Augusta National next April to join Nicklaus, Woods, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player as the sixth player in history to win each of the four majors at least once.

"I can't wait to drive down Magnolia Lane next year," he said of returning to Augusta.

Heady stuff, but manageable by somebody who uses his brain so well.

Sunday, he had to put his Saturday spectacle out of his mind. He had eagled two of the last three holes to add a four-under 68 to his 66s on Thursday and Friday. His lead was six shots. He was in control. On paper, it looked easy.

But it seldom is. And the pressure of needing to swing the club almost perfectly one more day often contributes to that not happening.

So when Sergio Garcia eagled the par-five 10th hole and cut the six-shot margin to two, a golfer with a more fragile mind-set — feeling how much was at stake — could have easily come apart.

McIlroy did not.

He got his own birdie at the 10th to get the lead back to three, then stayed steady after his bogey on the par-three 13th had allowed Garcia to move back to within two of the lead.

Soon, it was essentially over. Garcia, with McIlroy standing 200 yards away on the tee and watching, left a shot in a greenside pot bunker on the par-three 15th and did well to make bogey.

They traded birdies on the par-five 16th and by then, both Garcia and McIlroy's playing partner, Rickie Fowler, had effectively run out of time and holes.

Garcia and Fowler shared second at 15 under, two shots back of McIlroy. Garcia shot 66, Fowler 67. Amazingly, Fowler was in the 60s all four rounds and didn't win. It was the 25-year-old American's third consecutive top-five finish at a major.

McIlroy made a tap-in par on No. 18 for 71, and it was all he needed.

"My number going into the day was 20 under," he said of aiming for a final-round 68. "But it turned out I didn't need that."

Garcia, a veteran of 64 consecutive majors and 60 without a win, spoke clearly to the mind-set he was facing.

"I wanted to at least make him feel a little bit and see how he would respond," Garcia said. "He obviously responded well . . . every time I got closer, he kept making one birdie and not letting me any closer."

Fowler, who was second in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, N.C., last month, was more to the point.

"Rory played awesome," he said.

McIlroy had teased the media for two days by saying he had two key words he kept repeating to steady himself. He said he would reveal them Sunday.

They weren't sexy, but they revealed the state of a champion golfer's steely mind on a pressure-cooker Sunday.

"It was 'process' and 'spot,'" he said. "That was it."

He said the word "process" kept him grounded into making good decisions and comfortable swings. It kept him from thinking about the results, just the process of getting them. And "spot" was merely a putting focus.

"I'd find a spot and I just wanted to roll the ball over it," he said. "If it went in, great. If it didn't, then I'd try it the next hole."

McIlroy's winning purse was $1,665,933. But that drew nowhere near the attention of his father's winning prize. Ten years ago, Gerry McIlroy and three friends each bet 100 pounds at 500-1 odds that Rory would win the British Open before he reached age 26. That brings a total payoff of nearly 200,000 pounds, or $340,000 — about $319,000 more than Woods took home Sunday after shooting 75 to finish at six-over 294, 23 shots back.

"Honestly," McIlroy said, "that 50 grand he's going to win — I mean, the other three friends he did it with, they're going to be very happy."

McIlroy said his dad never reminded him of the bet.

What he was reminded of, immediately by the media, was the perception that he is the new face of golf, that he has a chance to dominate now. Most athletes, tossed that question, duck and run. Not McIlroy.

"Some of you have heard me say that golf is looking for somebody to put their hand up and try" to dominate, McIlroy said, apparently kissing Woods goodbye. "And I said at the time I want to be that person.

"I feel like there's a lot more left in me."

It is easy to visualize a whole bunch of pro golfers squirming.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ColumnGolfRory McIlroySergio GarciaRickie FowlerBritish Open
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