HOYLAKE, England -- The Boy King is back, but it wasn’t easy.
Rory McIlroy overcame back-to-back bogeys, a charge from Sergio Garcia, a heckler in the crowd and life itself to earn a wire-to-wire win at the 143rd British Open on a dry, overcast day at Royal Liverpool.
After winning his first two majors by eight shots each, McIlroy had a tougher time closing this one out. Although he took what appeared to be a comfortable six-shot lead into the final round at Hoylake, a hard-fought 71 left him just two clear of Garcia (66) and playing partner Rickie Fowler (67).
“It feels absolutely incredible,” McIlroy said, looking at the Claret Jug. “It’s sort of cool that they put your name on there even before you get it.”
Jim Furyk shot 65 to finish fourth at 13 under, four back, while Marc Leishman (65) and Adam Scott (66) tied for fifth at 12 under.
It was the third major for McIlroy, who will jump from eighth to second in the Official World Golf Ranking. A winner at the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA and now the British Open, he is three-quarters of the way to the career Grand Slam.
His winner’s check at Hoylake is $1.66 million, but he also earned his dad Gerry $85,432.50. Ten years ago Gerry, with three partners, bet £400 at 500-to-1 odds that Rory, then 15, would win the Open before he turned 26.
McIlroy is 25.
As if he didn’t have enough to think about, a heckler followed him for most of his round Sunday.
“I sort of put up with it for the first 15 holes,” McIlroy said. “And then he deliberately coughed on my downswing on the 16th tee. I still hit a great drive. But I heard it halfway down and I knew who it was. So I turned around and got him chucked out, thankfully.”
Fowler birdied three of the last four holes for his third straight top-five finish in a major. He also tied for second at the U.S. Open in June.
“It was a great back nine,” Fowler said, “but I didn’t get off to the start I wanted to.”
McIlroy went a long way toward winning the tournament late Saturday, when he made two eagles in his last three holes to build a six-shot lead. With his ‘A’ game absent Sunday, he needed almost all of it.
Garcia birdied 18 to cut the deficit to two, and a modicum of suspense remained as McIlroy watched his second shot at the par-5 finisher roll into a bunker. He escaped and two-putted for the win, hugged his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, and summoned his tearful mother, Rosie -- who had never seen him win a major -- to the green for an emotional embrace.
“I think both Rickie and I, we tried to push him as hard as we could,” Garcia said. “Like I said before, obviously it’s not easy when you know that you can’t make any mistakes [starting from seven strokes behind]. There’s so many things that have to go right for you to be able to get close.”
A handful of early starters proved there were low scores to be had. The beanpole Englishman Chris Wood, too far back to contend, nonetheless shot a 7-under 65, a score matched by Furyk (13 under), Leishman (12 under) and Shane Lowry (10 under).
Garcia, still in search of his first major title at 34, watched a biopic on the late Seve Ballesteros earlier in the week, and said he felt inspired by it. He started strong, going out in 3-under 32 before making eagle 3 at the 10th hole. He ran out of magic, though, going 1-under over the last eight holes.
McIlroy has long been tabbed for greatness. He hit a 40-yard drive at age 2, and chipped balls into a washing machine on the local news. Fans at Hoylake and around the world were watching what had once seemed inevitable but was cast into doubt when McIlroy made a series of major life changes after a banner year in 2012. He changed his equipment after signing a long-term deal with Nike. He moved to South Florida. He endured a management shakeup that led to a legal battle that will be heard in court in January. He tried to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, even sending out wedding invitations before breaking it off earlier this year.
His game suffered.
“I never had doubts,” said McIlroy, who said his low point came when he shot 79-75 and missed the cut at last year’s Open at Muirfield. “You can’t doubt your own ability. 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. I was just trying to find a way to make it come out again.”
He clipped Adam Scott at the Australian Open last December, but it wasn’t until McIlroy overcame a seven-stroke deficit to win the BMW PGA Championship in May, on the heels of his breakup, that he appeared to be returning to form. Fans -- many of them searching for the next great player to step up amid the slow decline of Tiger Woods -- breathed a sigh of relief.
McIlroy said he used two trigger words to ease him into every shot at Royal Liverpool. He said he would reveal them Sunday, if all went well.
“It’s going to be a big letdown for everyone,” he said. “It was ‘process’ and ‘spot.’ That was it.”
Process meant sticking to his routine and making good decisions and good swings, which were plentiful until Sunday. Spot meant picking his spot on the greens; his 34 one-putts tied for third best in the field.
There are four par-5s at Hoylake, three of them on the back nine, and these also helped McIlroy. He played them in 12 under par for the week, tied for best in the field, including a steadying birdie at the 10th hole Sunday.
That built his shrinking lead back to three, but still, it wasn’t over. He pulled his tee shot at the par-3 13th hole for his third bogey, cutting the lead to two again. This was not the same player who had gone 66-66-68 over the first three rounds, but was he the same guy who had carried a four-shot lead into the final round of the 2011 Masters only to shoot 80?
Garcia made par after a lucky bounce off the grandstand on the 12th hole. He missed right again at the par-3 15th hole, finding a pot bunker, and when he failed to extricate his ball on the way to a bogey to drop to 13 under and three shots behind, it seemed his run would most likely fall short.
“I just tried to get too cute,” Garcia said. “I could see it was a little bit of a downslope, and I thought if I just get it a couple yards over the bunker it’s going to just hit the downslope and maybe I can hole it.”
McIlroy becomes the third youngest player to win three of the four majors. Jack Nicklaus was 23 when he won his third. Woods was 24. But McIlroy could still catch those players. Nicklaus (18 majors) is long since retired; Woods (14) hasn’t won a major in over six years. He fought a two-way miss with the driver at Hoylake, posting scores of 69-77-73-75 to finish 6 over par.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, 64, shot 68 to finish 1 over, and may soon need to decide whether to use a captain’s pick on Woods, who has played just six rounds of golf since undergoing back surgery in March.
Phil Mickelson shot a final-round 68 to get to 5 under for the tournament, tied for 23rd place. He’s still without a top-10 finish in 2014.
Those players have been headliners for years. McIlroy says he wants to pick up where they left off, or at least try. He said he’s got his passion for the game back, adding he’s already anticipating his title defense at the 2015 Open at St. Andrews, his favorite course in the Open rotation.
“I just want to think ahead and go forward and try and win as many majors as I can,” McIlroy said, “because I feel like there’s a lot left in me.”