A whole lot of memorable shots were made by a lot of memorable golfers on a most memorable day on the coastal links near the Irish Sea on Sunday. But it was Rory McIlroy's reaction to one of his worst shots in four days that hinted at the triumph to come.
It was on the par-5 18th, with the finish line in sight, but not yet reached. He held a two-stroke lead over the tenacious, insistent and surging Sergio Garcia. McIlroy's lead had shrunk from as many as seven strokes to two with five holes to play. But now, with a little luck and a little composure, he stood a few minutes away from bagging the one tournament he'd coveted since starting to play the game as a kid up in County Down, Northern Ireland.
But after an impressive drive, the ESPN camera showed that his second shot, aiming for the flag 276 yards away, had found a greenside bunker -- or, as U.K. links bunkers appear to anyone who has ever stood inside of one, a dark and menacing cave.
At this point, another camera captured McIlroy, back in the fairway, tugging his glove off, as he turned to someone out of camera range and asking, "Bunker?" When the answer came back in the affirmative, he didn't so much as wince. He just nodded, and calmly said, "OK."
Without knowing whether he'd have to hike 250 yards to then hit backward or sideways, or whether he'd be able to get out at all with a single shot, McIlroy's expression was so unworried, his brow so unfurrowed, it seemed as if he might have well been asking about the weather. The baby face revealed not a hint of panic at the fact that a subsequent errant shot -- a flyer into the high grass beyond the green, a low shot that the bunker's wall would mockingly slap back at his feet -- could give it all back: The wire-to wire 71-hole lead. The prospect of being the third golfer in history to nail his third major by the age of 25. (See "Nicklaus, Jack" and "Woods, Tiger.")
When he reached the bunker, McIlroy's glance into the sandy dungeon was nonchalant. He was ready for whatever he saw. And what he saw was a decent lie -- which enabled a near-perfect, and guaranteed-tournament-winning, escape. The ball cleared the lip by a good six inches. Its flight to within 15 feet of the cup, sealing the deal, prompted a small smile from the man, and a fist pumped as modestly as possible.
Two putts later -- and after a crazy-wide smile wider than any of the many he'd unashamedly shown all of this happy week -- following recent tradition, the winner of the 143rd Open Championship embraced his woman in a long, feel-good hug. That was his mother, who hadn't been around to see him win his other two majors. For sentimentalists, the moment was the highest emotional PGA high since Phil Mickelson did that family-fest hug after the Masters in 2004.
But for historians, that final moment of the Open Championship represented more than the end of a great tournament, a hell of a horserace over the last few days. For bigger-picture thinkers, McIlroy's two-stroke victory had the feeling of, perhaps, something more significant: the legitimate beginning of the passing of the baton -- not necessarily to McIlroy, for the game is quite fickle; no, the simple passing, perhaps, from one era to another.
Consider: There have been plenty of majors where neither Tiger nor Phil was a factor. But has there ever been one that carried this much drama and tension and emotion -- and stellar golf shots by a whole lot of likeable athletes -- where we not only didn't miss Those Two, but were sort of glad they were out of the way? So that as McIlroy and Garcia and Rickie Fowler, three wildly different men but each appealing in his own right, could duel it out all Sunday long, away from the shadow of a couple of ghosts who are likely to increasingly no longer cast one?
This Open Championship's storyline will stand the test of time, with its suggestion that there are new players -- as in, in a Hollywood sense, players -- on the horizon. And with McIlroy's wire-to-wire triumph, ending with his four-round 271, two ahead of Garcia and Fowler, it's hard not to envision the Northern Irishman leading the next era's pack -- if only for his stunning poise these past two days, in the face of intense pressure.
On each day of the weekend, he allowed a huge lead to dwindle, but then managed to concentrate on one of his "trigger" words: "process" -- as in, the mechanics, wherein, on both days, instead of caving in, he proceeded to just concentrate on the mechanics, both mental and physical, that had gotten him here -- and pull back ahead, in most veteran-like fashion.
On Saturday, McIlroy watched a five-stroke lead entirely disappear, and then, with two birdies and two eagles on the back nine, pulled away again. On Sunday, after aggressively opening with driver and scoring a birdie, he began to, again, back up. On five, six and seven he sprayed several shots to unfortunate places. Afterward, in his own words, all he'd hit over that three-hole slump was a "hiccup," but a spectator sensed that his errant shots at the time suggested something more serious: A revisit of other tournaments, in which, with time running out, he ran out of the gut-check that was needed.
He bogeyed both five and six. The wheels were wobbling. Then, from the rough on the par-4 seventh, his approach found another bunker/dungeon. But with everything on the line, he blasted out to within inches to save the par, and from there on in, his steady hand returned; you could see it in his eye, his stride down the fairway. There'd be one more bogey, but also many steely pars as the resurgent Garcia and the winningly elfin Oklahoma State-orange-draped Fowler (he of Japanese and Native American grandparents, and flat-bill caps that dwarf his head, and facial hair that evokes Johnny Depp on a bad day) vied for second position.
In the end, on the most white-hot of stages, it was Garcia who blinked, when on the par-3 15th, he found a bunker, and his escape shot hit the sod and bounced back at his feet. Until that point, it was looking as if Garcia and McIlroy would take it neck and neck to the wire. The Spaniard showed none of the late-round panic that characterized his 2007 fold in Carnoustie; his eagle on the 10th, as he charged toward the seemingly vulnerable McIlroy, signaled that he wasn't going to let up this time around. Even the fates seemed to be on Garcia's side, pushing him toward the elusive major: On the 12th, a wild shot into the grandstands pinballed back out to the grass beneath the green, for a most fortuitous up and down. But he couldn't quite summon the final psychic surge. McIlroy's mind was in charge on this day.
Still, Garcia has finished in the top five in three of his last four, and seemed to play this tournament with as much mental ease as we've seen in a long time. Perhaps no longer having to be Tiger's foil after years of being portrayed as the man who could puncture Tiger's aura, with Eldrick not a recent threat, his head is catching up to his physical prowess.
Fowler? On Sunday he was just errant enough with his drives on the back nine to keep him from surging, but played, like McIlroy, with a refreshingly relaxed vibe: even chatting with McIlroy, his partner, and like McIlroy, seemingly unencumbered by the curse of hyper-competiveness that has always stained Wood's luster. Fowler's second consecutive second-place finish in a major suggests that he, too, will belong to the new pack.
As to the old guys: Phil? It's a good thing he enjoyed his year with the jug, and the $40,000 bottle of burgundy he sipped from it one night, because his defense of the title this weekend was anything but staunch. He turned in an admirable 68 on Sunday: under no pressure, after playing himself out of contention with a first-round 74. He finished tied for 23rd, 12 shots back. Will he continue to contend in majors? Probably. Will he win any more? No comment.
But at least Mickelson played increasingly well over the weekend; Woods, starting with a 69, went backward from the first round, finishing with a final-round 75 to cap his worst 72-hole finish in a major -- and putting the possibility of a spot on the roster on the Ryder Cup team as a captain's pick in doubt. When the Ryder Cup captain finishes ahead of you on the leaderboard (Tom Watson turned in a final-round 68) it's sort of hard to envision Woods getting Watson's nod. Then, it's also kind of hard to envision a day when Tiger being on the Ryder team is in doubt.
However, a year ago, it would have been hard to envision McIlroy winning this one. He missed the cut at Muirfield in 2013. But now? Well, if he wins a few more of the big ones in the next few years, there's no way he could be kept out of the conversation, with Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, as one of Europe's all-time elites.
Speaking of conversation, McIlroy's disarming frankness in interviews all week, from Tuesday until post-victory, makes him easy to root for as the sport's next major player. Really: How cool would it be if a guy who answers every question honestly (he never shied from talking about his Freaky Fridays), who wears his emotions on his sleeve, soon succeeds an imperious icon whose talents, but accompanying frowns and petulance, made him awesome as a golfer but hard to love as a superstar?
Speaking of conversations, if you caught McIlroy's post-round sit down with Tom Rinaldi you couldn't help but notice that when, after a few minutes of answering Rinaldi's softballs with grins and glee, McIlroy brought up the subject of his mom and his face changed expression, dramatically. As he spoke of dedicating this one to his mother, he had to fight back tears. Real kid, real moment: real what's cool about sports.
So, what's the takeaway, after one of the most dramatic Open Championships in years? First, how can you not get behind a guy who represents Northern Ireland, with its scarred and tumultuous modern history? A guy who looks as if he's loving the ride, no matter where it goes? Who might be just beginning to embark on a tour through history?
And in the bigger picture, if you're a fan of the sport as sport -- not star-worship entertainment -- how can you not leave Royal Liverpool's links hoping that the eternal daily surging and receding waters on the Dee Estuary, leading into the Bay of Liverpool, leading into the Irish Sea, might not represent the only tide that's changing?