Rory McIlroy inches closer to history

HOYLAKE, England -- Winning a major is supposed to leave welts. It's meant to draw blood. Its purpose in life is to reduce your nerves to paper shreds, to prematurely age you.

Rory McIlroy is 25 going on 35, thanks to the final round of the Open Championship and Sergio Garcia, the player who said he could never win a major -- and almost did Sunday.

Under overcast evening skies, McIlroy collected the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. There was as much relief on his face as there was joy. This major and this day can do that to you.

"I'm immensely proud of myself," said McIlroy.

He should be. McIlroy had begun the afternoon with a 6-shot lead. He was up 7 after the first hole. The on-site engraver began practicing his capital R's, M's and I's.

Royal Liverpool might have been semi-defenseless (rain-softened conditions, annoying winds only on the back nine), but the pressures of an Open Championship never call in sick. McIlroy felt it. He's listed at 160 pounds, but he was carrying a lot more weight during those final 18 holes.

For starters, he was lugging the weight of his legacy. Even his father had placed a bet on him 10 years ago to win an Open Championship before his 26th birthday. McIlroy checked that box, and his old man and friends will cash a check for about $350,000.

He was also lugging the weight of not becoming the next Greg Norman, who blew a 6-shot lead at the 1996 Masters. And remember, it was McIlroy who blew the 54-hole lead at the 2011 Masters.

There were no collapses Sunday. Wobbles, yes. But nothing fatal.

"I didn't need to do that much today, thankfully," said McIlroy of his play-it-safe, 1-under-par 71.

McIlroy's victory meant taking one step closer to history. He took the step, a giant one, and now owns three legs of the four-legged career Grand Slam: a U.S. Open, a PGA Championship and the major he dreamed of winning as a kid in Holywood, County Down, in Northern Ireland.

Back then, with the blind innocence of a 10-year old, he would walk into the Holywood Golf Club pro shop and fill out a scorecard. Where it read Competition, McIlroy would carefully print Open Championship. Then he would record his make-believe score and make it something preposterous. He would finish by signing his name, just as he signed his name Sunday night in the scorer's cabin located only a flop wedge away from Hoylake's clubhouse.

And the number was still preposterous: 17-under par, just 2 shots shy of Tiger Woods' all-time Open Championship record of 19-under.

"To sit here, 25 years of age ... I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly," McIlroy said.

It wasn't an easy victory. It wasn't the romp at Congressional in 2011 to win the U.S. Open. Or the 2012 PGA Championship, when he distanced himself from the field in the final nine. This Open Championship did what it was supposed to do, which is exact a toll. McIlroy might have gone wire-to-wire, but on Sunday his feet slipped just a little while making the trip.

McIlroy was pushed and pressured by Garcia, who famously announced two years ago that he wasn't good enough to win a major, that "I don't have the thing I need to have."

He had something Sunday. Starting at 9-under and 7 strokes behind McIlroy, Garcia cut the lead to 3 by the sixth hole. It was down to 2 by the time McIlroy left the 13th green.

Garcia finished at 15-under, tied for second with Rickie Fowler (three majors this year, three top-five finishes). Garcia didn't win, but he at least took an eraser to a reputation that has included, at times, too much whining.

When McIlroy's gimme par putt dropped on the 18th hole (he could three-putt and still win), he pumped his right fist and then threw the ball into the grandstands encircling most of the green. He hugged Fowler and then gestured for his mom, Rosie, the one who had worked extra jobs when he was growing up, to join him.

They embraced. If you looked hard, you could see Rosie clutching a tissue in her left hand. Sure, she cried. And McIlroy himself teared up later as he realized this was the first time his mother had seen him win a major in person.

What a wonderful, weird day. On the same day that McIlroy became the third-youngest player to win three majors (behind Woods and Jack Nicklaus), his former fiancée, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, won her first WTA title of the year. Red numbers overpowered the Open Championship leaderboard. And 64-year-old Tom Watson almost shot his age, settling instead for a 68.

McIlroy understands and appreciates history. He knew what this victory would mean to his résumé. He has won a major in three of the last four years. Keep it up and we'll be talking about him surpassing Nicklaus' 18 major wins.

He also knew about recent history. The past 18 months have been tumultuous for McIlroy. Changes in agents, clubs, home addresses and relationships. A lawsuit became news.

But McIlroy figured his way through it. A year ago at Muirfield he missed the Open Championship cut. On Sunday he smooched the Claret Jug.

"No, I never had doubts," he said. "You can't doubt your own ability."

Only five players have won the career Grand Slam. Phil Mickelson, owner of three majors, expects McIlroy to become the sixth.

"With his length and the way he plays and how well he plays [Augusta National], that definitely will happen and probably soon," said Mickelson. "And that just shows that he's such a complete player at such a young age."

He's a complete player because he knows how to learn from his mistakes. And from these last 18 months.

"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."

As McIlroy walked from the 18th green and up the stairs to the walkway leading to the scorer's cabin, he closed his eyes and arched his neck. You could almost hear his sigh of relief.

He had survived Royal Liverpool, Garcia, the last 18 months and the expectations -- ours and, most of all, his.