Rory McIlroy’s come a long way in the past three months.
Sunday afternoon, he wrapped up the British Open championship by shooting his fourth straight round under par. McIlroy finished a rousing 17-under par for the tournament, two shots clear of the field.
Not that finishing under par was a noteworthy achievement. Forty-six players in the field broke par. Eleven were 10-under or better.
Was this The Open or the Humana Challenge? Was this Royal Liverpool or the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West?
There remain very few givens in the world of sports. Heck, an SEC school lost the BCS Championship game last January. Neither the Celtics nor Lakers participated in the recent NBA playoffs. Norway failed to garner the most medals at the Winter Olympics.
But we should be able to rely upon hideous weather at The Open. For one day, at least, if not the entire week.
We relish seeing rain suits flapping in the wind, sounding like helicopters ready for liftoff. We savor flagsticks bent almost in half. We chuckle at Darren Clarke struggling to light another cigarette, and achieving success, only to have smoke and ashes thrust back into his face.
We expect, no, demand, rain pelting down sideways, shots never rising more than 10 feet above the soggy turf, and water fowl preening in the pot bunkers.
And we expect par to be an honorable score, not a point from which to leap into double-digit red numbers.
But, no. Hoylake offered none of the adverse conditions to which we’ve grown accustomed and fond. Saturday offered the only possibility of riveting weather, and what did the R & A do?
They sent the field out at the crack of dawn, in threesomes, no less, in order to get the players off the premises before the really heavy stuff came down.
We were geared up for The Open, not the Greenbrier Classic.
Left defenseless by the dearth of wind and pesky elements, Royal Liverpool didn’t stand a chance. She did the only thing she could: surrender birdies by the score.
The R & A could have — should have? — seen this coming. In 2006, back when he played well in the majors, Tiger Woods won by two shots with a 270 score, 18-under par. Seven players got to 10-under or better, and 47 broke par for the tournament.
There might have been good reasons why Royal Liverpool was left out of the Open rotation between 1967 and 2006.
But give McIlroy credit. He saw the chance to go low and seized it. His opening-round 66 featured six birdies and nary a bogey. Friday, he bogeyed the first hole, then posted seven birdies en route to another 66.
That left McIlroy four shots clear of the field, and he has proven adept at closing the deal when grabbing a big lead at a major. Even when he dropped into a tie late Saturday, he seemed in command. Sure enough, he eagled both the par-5 16th and 18th holes to finish with a nice, six-shot cushion.
The lead would be pared to two on several occasions Sunday, but you never felt McIlroy was challenged. Pars were good enough to hold the lead. Sure enough, he was even par through 15, still two shots ahead, and his birdie on 16 iced the Open.
The truly amazing part of McIlroy’s performance is that it followed his performance at Augusta in April.
As the very last player to make the cut, at 4-over par, and since an odd number of players did so, McIlroy had the dubious distinction of playing his third round with a “non-scoring marker.” The marker was Augusta National member Jeff Knox.
Knox shot a 70. McIlroy shot a 71.
At one point, Knox had a four-stroke lead, but McIlroy rallied to birdie the three of the last four holes.
And now, after his Open victory, McIlroy needs only a win at Augusta to complete the career grand slam.
“I’ll be going into Augusta next year pretty confident,” McIlroy said after Sunday’s round. “I feel comfortable off the tee and into the greens. And if I can just figure out the greens a little bit more. …
“What really helped me last year was playing with Jeff Knox in the third round. He’s my amateur marker, and he’s the best I’ve ever seen on Augusta’s greens. I might have to take a couple of trips up before next year and have a couple of practice rounds with him.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears on Wednesday.