GOLF: Next step for McIlroy is to win without his best

Date: July 21, 2014

by John Fanta

The fist pumps were not huge Sunday. They were just signs of reassurance from just a 25-year old who put himself in a special category in golf that can never be taken away. For a native of Northern Ireland, The Open Championship has always been Rory McIlroy's top prize. But now the youngest player to win the championship since Tiger Woods has to find even higher heights.

McIlroy remained controlled on Sunday, shooting a 1-under, 71, to win at Royal Liverpool by two strokes. Was it a remarkable round for McIlroy? No, but it didn't need to be. And now, he's staring at a prize that he saw leave the clutches of his hands in 2011, the green jacket.

McIlroy could not be better for golf at this stage of his career. To be behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the youngest to win three legs of the career Grand Slam says it all. And nobody knows constant heightened expectations like Woods and Nicklaus, which begs the question of where McIlroy could stand in golf's history.

At 25, there's no rush for the Irishman to pile up wins. It's how he wins that is the key question. McIlroy went wire-to-wire this past weekend, playing clearly the best golf out of anybody. The true teller of where McIlroy can put himself in golf's history books at the end of his career depends on how often he needs wire-to-wire quality to rack up victories. Can McIlroy find the wins by not playing his best?

At this point, that question still remains to be seen consistently, but McIlroy has the tools to contend just as he continually has. Averaging 4.5 birdies per round, a PGA Tour best, McIlroy's putter is a weapon toward any field. Because of the ability to save himself on the green, McIlroy is in fifth with 15 consecutive cuts reached. He's tied for 28th in the world with a scoring average of 66.7 as well.

McIlroy knows what a collapse feels like, which has arguably turned out to be one of the most meaningful occurrences in his career. His experience alone at such an early age is an asset. To have handled an equipment and management change along with a high level of attention on a break-up with tennis star Caroline Wozniack, McIlroy reaching this point after those situations, which could have been distracting, is remarkable. And in a time where Woods' game is irrelevant and Phil Mickelson has not been up to par, McIlroy's surge is needed for the game, which is looking for the next consistent, dominant top player. If he can win with his secondary game, that could be the beginning of him claiming legendary status.

Other notes from The Open

-Tom Watson finished at 1-over, 18 shots behind McIlroy, yet finished in front of Woods, Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald, and Martin Kaymer most notably. The 65-year old, a fan favorite, still is bringing smiles to galleries.

-Woods' 69th-place finish was the worst in a majors in his career after he had made the cut.

-44-year old Jim Furyk shot a 65 on Sunday to finish with the lone 13-under on the leaderboard. He has finished in the top 15 in all three majors this year, and certainly is a name to watch heading into the PGA.

-Round of the Day: 27-year old Irishman Shane Lowry carded a 7-under, 65, and finished at 10-under in the tournament. He missed six of his first eight cuts this season but was a prime example of rising to the occasion in a major. That is what makes them so difficult to win, and it's what makes McIlroy's feat even more powerful

WSOU Golf Coverage Note:

In just under two weeks, the world's best head to Firestone Country Club in Akron, OH, to square off in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. In 2013, it was Tiger's playground. Woods, who has won four times in Akron, rolled through the field with a seven-shot victory. McIlroy, Mickelson, and many others will take center stage and WSOU Assistant Sports Director and Cleveland native John Fanta will travel over to Akron with coverage throughout all four days on 89.5 WSOU and WSOU.net. The tournament will be held July 31 – August 3.

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