HOYLAKE, England — It would be very easy to read too much into this, to overstate the matter, to succumb to what the financial world terms ‘irrational exuberance’ and say of Rory McIlroy going eagle-bogey-eagle on his last three holes to shoot 68 and get to 16 under par, six clear of Rickie Fowler (68), that what we’re watching isn’t just a 25-year-old kid winning the 143rd British Open at Royal Liverpool.
It would be easy to say we’re watching McIlroy wake up golf after a nearly two-year slumber. To say we’re watching the post-Tiger, post-Phil era roll out exactly as we thought it would two years ago, when McIlroy won his second major (the PGA) in as many years before picking off back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events. It would be easy to say that McIlroy may well keep making birdies and eagles, as he tends to do when he’s on, and win next month’s PGA at Valhalla.
And who’s to say you’d be wrong?
To be safe, though, you’d better just stick with the facts.
Fact: Rory is absolutely killing it with the driver.
“It’s been proven, statistically, that you gain more on the field with the long game than the short game,” said Luke Donald (71, 1 over for the tournament) as he posed for pictures with cell phone-wielding club members and guests after his round on Saturday. “And I think that’s what we’re seeing with Rory. When he’s driving it like this, it takes so much pressure off the rest of his game, and he’s very tough to beat. It’s impressive to watch when he’s going like that.”
Fact: The controversial decision to split the field and use two tees for the first time in the tournament’s long history proved to be a wise one, and it worked out in McIlroy’s favor. Not an hour after he signed his scorecard, he was sitting on the dais talking to reporters when the skies opened, releasing an absolute deluge that pelted the press tent and anyone still on the course.
“I think it’s the second best decision the R&A made this year,” said McIlroy of the move to stay a step ahead of the foul weather. “The first being bringing the Open back to Portrush.” Some in the crowd laughed; on this day even Rory’s comic timing was perfect. “But I think it was a great decision. They got it right. You don’t want to be stuck out in that. Well, I definitely wouldn’t want to be stuck out in that. And looking at the forecast tomorrow, it looks nice, and we’ll get a full day’s play.”
Fact: This is now a one-man golf tournament.
McIlroy was tied with Fowler, playing just ahead of him, at 12 under par through 12 holes, recalling the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, where Fowler beat McIlroy and D.A. Points in a playoff.
Then it all changed, because this is not the Wells Fargo. That the lead was six by day’s end was due in part to Fowler’s 2-over finish over his five final holes, yes, but McIlroy found another gear. His 341-yard drive split the fairway on 16, setting up a 4-iron to 21 feet and an eagle putt that set off the first big roar of the afternoon. McIlroy’s slightly pulled second shot led to a bogey at 17, but no one will remember it. They will remember how he drove his ball 322 yards down the fairway on 18, this time leading to a 237-yard 5-iron to 11 feet, which he also drained for eagle.
“I was just sort of waiting for those two holes,” said McIlroy. “I felt like I was driving the ball well, and if I could drive on the fairway on 16 and 18, I knew that I would have irons into the greens for my second shots.”
Fact: McIlroy’s fans Saturday included men with zebra heads, a man with a lion head, a woman with mouse ears — in terms of biological diversity, it looked like Tiger’s old throng. The public is notoriously fickle with its affections, but you know right away which players pass for marquee. All you’ve got to do is watch the kids. At the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, Todd Hamilton’s 8-year-old son was watching his dad play when he turned to ask his mother, “When can we go see Rory McIlroy?”
At Hoylake a little boy in an Adidas cap shouted, “C’mon, Rory!” His father, wearing a Nike cap, beamed. It was Congressional all over again.
Fact: As good as McIlroy is hitting it with the driver, he had to steady himself with the putter before his pyrotechnics display to end his round.
“The putter definitely saved me,” he said. “Even as early as the second hole. I made a good par save there. And then from the fifth onwards I putted really nicely. I made a big par save on seven. I made another good par save on nine. It was a very good putting round, sort of momentum putts — putts that you really need to make just to keep the round going.”
Add it all up and McIlroy leads the field with 28 one-putts. He is winning this thing in more than one category, which explains the six-stroke margin over Fowler and the seven-stroke cushion over Sergio Garcia (69 on Saturday, 9-under total) and Dustin Johnson (71), whose frustration was apparent as he left the 16th green with only a par. “Shit,” mouthed Johnson ever so slowly, careful not to give the word any volume.
Rory was Rory again, separating himself, filling the big moments with the sort of dazzle that was once the signature of Woods alone. Tiger? He’s still here. He shot 73 Saturday to drop to 3 over, 19 shots off the lead. But on this day, at least, he wasn’t so much missed as replaced.
Rory McIlroy: same swoosh, same jaw-dropping shots, totally different guy.
Looking at the forecast, it looks nice.