HOYLAKE, England (AP) — Rory McIlroy had to work a little harder, sweat a little more. No matter. Just like his other two majors, this British Open was never really in doubt.
Staked to a six-shot lead going into the final round, McIlroy turned back brief challenges with key birdies around the turn and a majestic drive at just the right moment to close with a 1-under 71 and complete a wire-to-wire victory at Royal Liverpool.
In another major lacking drama over the final hour, what brought the British Open to life was the potential of its champion.
McIlroy won the U.S. Open by eight shots. He won the PGA Championship by eight shots.
And with his two-shot victory over Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler, the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland joined some elite company beyond the names on that silver claret jug. Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24) are the only other players since 1934 to win three majors before age 25.
Boy Wonder is back. Or maybe he’s just getting started again.
“I’ve really found my passion again for golf,” McIlroy said. “Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer that I can be. And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability.”
McIlroy put an end to this major with a powerful drive down the fairway at the par-5 16th, setting up a two-putt birdie to restore his lead to three shots. He finished with two pars, the last putt from inches away.
McIlroy simply smiled, shared hugs with his caddie and Fowler, and then waved mother Rosie onto the green. She was not at the other two majors he won. He turned and applauded the fans in the horseshoe arena around the 18th green, and then returned to collect the oldest trophy in golf.
This could have been another romp except for a shaky stretch early for McIlroy, and solid efforts from Garcia and Fowler.
Garcia pulled within two shots with four holes to play until he put his tee shot in a pot bunker just right of the 15th green. His first shot failed to get over the 4-foot sodden wall and rolled back into the sand. He made bogey, and two birdies over the final three holes were not enough. Garcia shot 66 and was runner-up in a major for the fourth time.
“I think that we gave it a good effort,” Garcia said. “And there was someone a little bit better.”
Fowler, playing in the final group for the second straight major, didn’t do anything wrong. He just didn’t do enough right to make up a six-shot deficit. Fowler played without a bogey and shot 67.
All that’s left for McIlroy to become the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam is a green jacket from the Masters.
“I don’t have any doubt he’ll win there,” Fowler said. “I just hope I get that one before he does.”
It was the first time two straight majors were won wire to wire. Martin Kaymer did it last month at Pinehurst No. 2, winning the U.S. Open by eight shots.
McIlroy, who finished at 17-under 271, wasn’t the only big winner Sunday. Ten years ago, his father and three of his friends each put up 100 pounds ($170) at 500-1 odds that McIlroy would win the British Open before he turned 26.
The kid made good on the best with a brand of golf that had him marked early as golf’s next great player.
“He’s never reminded me. I knew that he’d done it,” McIlroy said. “I’m not sure if it will pay out. If it does, it’s a nice little bonus.”
McIlroy moved up to No. 2 in the world, perhaps on his way to regaining the No. 1 ranking that once looked as if it would be his for years. He ended the 2012 season by winning his second major and capturing the money title on the PGA Tour and European Tour.
Since then, the road has been bumpier than some of the dunes at Hoylake.
McIlroy signed a megadeal with Nike and switched out all his equipment. He changed management for the second time, leading to lawsuits that are still to be decided in court. And after getting engaged to Caroline Wozniacki on New Year’s Eve, he abruptly broke off the engagement in May with a telephone call.
His path to victory in The Open was much smoother.
The winning shots might have been those two eagles he made at the end of the third round, giving him a six-shot lead. Those extra shots came in handy.
McIlroy, after smashing his opening tee shot and making an 18-foot birdie putt to stretch the lead to seven shots, looked shaky for only a short stretch on the front nine. He took bogey on the par-5 fifth hole by hitting his approach under the grandstand, hacking out of a shaggy drop area over the green and missing a 6-foot putt. On the next hole, he took another bogey by failing to get up-and-down left of the green.
McIlroy steadied himself with a birdie on the par-3 ninth. And after Garcia in the group ahead made a 10-foot eagle putt on No. 10 to get within two shots, McIlroy responded by reaching the green in two for another birdie.
Garcia blinked when he could least afford it, leaving a shot in the bunker at No. 15 as McIlroy watched from the tee.
Jim Furyk was among four players who tied the course record with a 65 to finish fourth. Tiger Woods was long gone. He finished his 75 as McIlroy was still on the practice range. Woods finished 69th — his worst finish over 72 holes in any major — and wound up 23 shots behind.