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British Open: Rory McIlroy matches greats with Hoylake triumph

From Chris Murphy, CNN
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1400 GMT (2200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rory McIlroy wins British Open at Hoylake
  • McIlroy finishes two shots clear of Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler
  • Third major title for 25-year-old from Northern Ireland
  • Tiger Woods records worst finish at British Open

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Hoylake (CNN) -- Rory McIlroy is one step away from golfing immortality, but it didn't come easily.

Perhaps that is the way it should be, given the 25-year-old's two-shot victory at the British Open has elevated him into exalted company.

Only two players have completed three legs of a grand slam by that age -- Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods -- a potent pair with 32 majors between them.

Sunday's victory at Hoylake means it is only the U.S. Masters that eludes him, a tournament which inflicted such a cruel fate back in 2011.

Rory McIlroy gets up close and personal with The Claret Jug as he savors his maiden British Open triumph. Rory McIlroy gets up close and personal with The Claret Jug as he savors his maiden British Open triumph.
McIlroy triumphs at Hoylake
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McIlroy triumphs at Hoylake McIlroy triumphs at Hoylake
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When McIlroy wins majors, he usually wins big.

Read: McIlroy opens six-shot lead after third round

His previous pair -- the U.S. Open in 2011, and the U.S PGA Championship in 2013 -- had both been secured at a canter, eight shots the margin to second best. But not this time.

Out in front by six shots at the start of the day McIlroy stumbled round the links, scrapping and clawing away at the course to maintain his advantage.

His main challenger wasn't playing partner Rickie Fowler but friend and Ryder Cup comrade Sergio Garcia, of Spain, who charged round the first 10 holes in five-under par.

At one stage, McIlroy's lead had been whittled to a mere two shots, but while the Spaniard's nerve wobbled, McIlroy's held. Just.

Garcia took two shots to get out of a green side bunker on the 15th and McIlroy made a birdie on the 16th to stretch his lead to three.

He could even afford to find a bunker on the last for a par-five to finish on 17-under for the championship. Garcia and Fowler finished tied for second on 15-under.

"There was a better player," Garcia said after shooting an impressive 66. "It's as simple as that."

Read: The new love interest in Rory's life

Perhaps this leg of the hat-trick is the one that will give McIlroy greatest satisfaction, given he had to grind his way to the finish line amid the constant strain of pressure and expectation.

His celebration was one that betrayed the relief he felt at getting the job done. Now all that is left is to conquer those demons at Augusta.

After being presented with his prize, McIlroy told reporters: "It feels absolutely incredible.

"I'm happy I gave myself a cushion because there were a lot of guys coming at me especially Sergio and Rickie Fowler.

"Just to be sitting here and looking at this thing and having my name on it, is a great feeling.

"It hasn't sunk in yet and I'm going to enjoy it and let it sink in tonight in the company of my friends and family."

As the 25-year-old himself acknowledged on Saturday, there will be a mountain of hype when he heads to Augusta next April, but for now it is all about McIlroy's transformation on the links.

Read: McIlroy back to best with PGA Championship win

His British Open career was locked in reverse -- finishes of 25 and 60 were followed by a missed cut at Muirfield last year -- but all it took to arrest the decline was a spell of intense practice back at the place he learned the game.

He told CNN prior to the tournament he had been honing his game on the links courses of his native Northern Ireland in preparation for an assault on golf's oldest major.

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Whatever he did worked.

Two opening rounds of 66 were followed by a 68 on Saturday when a scintillating salvo -- two eagles in his closing three holes -- had broken the back of the field and opened up a six-shot lead.

Unless one of those within clawing distance could tear up the course and induce panic, McIlroy could cruise home on the banks of the Wirral Peninsula.

It turns out, pretty much everyone did. His Sunday score was the worst of the top 13 finishers.

While Fowler never managed to get within striking distance -- three late birdies helping him clamber back into joint-second -- Garcia ensured the threat of McIlroy running aground remained constant.

Read: McIlroy hits the front early at Hoylake

Both birdied the opening hole as thunderous applause followed them down the first, ten minutes apart.

But then McIlroy stumbled.

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Bogeys on five and six opened the door, and from the galleries following the group up ahead cheers were thick and frequent.

Garcia, a long-standing crowd favorite, had three birdies to his name as he strolled off the fifth green, and the deficit stood at three.

When McIlroy's approach from the rough at seven pitched on the brow of the bunker and dropped back into the sand, a heavy groan from the gallery told its own story.

He recovered to make his par then sunk a birdie chance at nine to balance his nerves.

Trouble was, a monstrous roar up ahead signaled a Garcia eagle on 10, and the clutch of Spaniards who had made the trip started to believe.

Two fierce blows offered McIlroy the chance to hit straight back, and he duly did.

By this stage Hoylake crackled with tension, as those following the final two groups relayed information to those around them while listening intently to their radios.

A sea of Irish voices that had made their way across the narrow strait between the Emerald Isle and Merseyside became a little more desperate in their pleas.

Read: How Hoylake inspired the Green Jacket

McIlroy offered further encouragement with a dropped stroke at 14 but a run of four consecutive pars, albeit on a tricky stretch of the course, frustrated Garcia -- still searching for his first major at the 63rd time of asking.

His hopes expired on the par three 15th as he found a bunker and took two to emerge. McIlroy, watching from the tee, could breathe a little easier.

Garcia duly birdied the par five 16th, little more than a gimme with a helpful wind blowing off the Dee Estuary, but McIlroy answered straight back with one of his own.

By that stage the questions marks were slowly evaporating.

Read: Rory shares tears with his mum

A par back into the wind on the 17th was secured with a delicate chip from right of the green and though Garcia duly made birdie on the final hole, McIlroy knew the Open was all but his.

Despite firing his approach on 18 into the bunker, he duly carved out his ball and rolled his birdie putt close, tapping in as some 7,000 people surrounding the green hailed their champion.

It was the final shot of a day marked by more low scoring, with 64-year-old American Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson shooting a four-under 68 to finish one one-over.

By contrast, former world number one Tiger Woods closed the tournament on six-over-par and in 69th, his worst ever finish at the oldest major.

Read: Tiger fails to fire at Hoylake

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