Walking away prematurely from the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, Rory McIlroy was about a million miles away from ever hoisting a claret jug.
“Brain dead” was the term McIlroy used for the state of his game a year ago after missing the cut in the Open for the first time.
“Seriously, I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months,” he said. “I’m trying to get out of it.”
Whatever was lost was found when he returned to Hoylake last week. McIlroy was a different kind of unconscious, dominating Royal Liverpool and the field to add the 2014 British to his major catalog that includes the U.S. Open (2011) and PGA (2012).
For a guy whose previous major wins already came by eight-stroke margins, his wire-to-wire performance at Hoylake might have been his most masterful. When the comfortable lead his opening pair of 66s built was cut to a tie after 13 holes on Saturday, McIlroy converted massive drives, precise irons and perfect putts into a birdie and two eagles on the remaining even-numbered holes to open a six-shot gap. He steadied a few wobbles Sunday and coasted in down the stretch with two shots to spare.
It’s a far cry from a year ago and signals a brighter future with only the Masters Tournament standing between the 25-year-old and a career slam.
“I’ve really found my passion again for golf,” he 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 for the rest of the winners and losers from Hoylake:
BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. Tie for fifth in Masters and back-to-back runner-ups at U.S. and British Opens. Working with Butch Harmon has pushed young Rickie to new heights.
BIRDIE: Sergio Garcia. Of all the close major calls in the Spaniard’s 61 major starts, this effort was his most positive since his charging runner-up as a teenage rookie at 1999 PGA.
BOGEY: R&A. Most people differ with my thoughts here, but the decision to tee off both sides Saturday to avoid forecasted afternoon storms deprived the Open of its most essential element. It broke a 154-year precedent and deprived us of seeing how McIlroy’s beautiful game would hold up against foul weather. I understand the need for safe-guarding fans from potential thunderstorms (which never materialized). That the move avoided a deluge only makes it likely that the R&A will do it again. As the Scots say, “Nae wind; nae rain; nae golf.”
PAR: Tiger Woods. It would be easy to pile on since he failed to break par after an opening 69, but expecting more from a guy with two competitive rounds since undergoing back surgery is more unrealistic than the usual extreme Tiger standards.
BIRDIE: Tom Watson. The timeless linksmaster came within four strokes of shooting his age Sunday with a closing 68 and tying for 51st after breaking his own record as the oldest to ever make the cut.
BOGEY: Tom Watson. Ryder Cup captain didn’t get much help from Woods or Phil Mickelson, who both might need a captain’s pick to qualify but haven’t shown much to deserve it. Can he pick himself?
BIRDIE: Jim Furyk. For an older guy (44) with a weird swing, Furyk manages to keep himself relevant in all the biggest events. He finished solo fourth at Hoylake for the second time, his fifth top-five finish in the British.
BOGEY: Bubba Watson. Masters champ claimed distraction of “too many people” inside the ropes led to his unfocused freefall midway through first round and second consecutive missed major cut. Plus, he couldn’t name a single Beatle.
BIRDIE: Gerry McIlroy. Rory’s father cashed in with three friends for a $350,000 payout on a 500-to-1 wager he made a decade ago that his son would win the Open before his 26th birthday.
BOGEY: English beat. Despite high hopes for the likes of Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, the English drought extended. Nick Faldo remains the last English winner in 1992 and Tony Jacklin the last to win Open in England in 1969.
BIRDIE: John Singleton. The local resin factory worker not only qualified but made three birdies in his last four holes Friday as he played through tears under the cheers of friends, family and anyone who loves a great success story. His 4-over total tied or beat 10 major champions.
BOGEY: Ernie Els. Hitting a fan with his opening tee shot unraveled the two-time Open champ, who slapped around a three-putt from a foot on the first hole and never recovered.
BIRDIES: Marc Leishman and Shane Lowry. Sunday 65s by both didn’t quite get them automatic Masters invites, but the top-10s moved them to 51st and 59th respectively in the world rankings to give them a decent shot at reaching Augusta.
BOGEY: Georgia golfers. Eight Bulldogs teed it up for the second consecutive major, but only three made the cut with Chris Kirk’s T19 leading the way. Bryden Macpherson brought up the rear with rounds of 90-80.
BIRDIE: ESPN. The streaming app made it easy to follow nearly 40 hours of live coverage. And if you liked British accents and no commercials, you could even choose the BBC international feed. Splendid.
BOGEY: Charles Howell. For all of his quality play this season, the Augusta native declined his exemption to Hoylake citing “a personal family reason.” The PGA will be his only major start for second year in a row.
BIRDIE: Jimmy Walker. After a T9 at Augusta, T6 at Sawgrass and T8 at Pinehurst, we’ll excuse him for his T26 at Hoylake. He’s the new Jason Dufner.
BOGEY: Steve Stricker. For the second consecutive year, the top 20 player skipped the British. Absence of major win doesn’t seem to bother him as he drifts closer to retirement.
BIRDIE: Ivor Robson. The familiar high-pitched first tee announcer got a lot of air time and suggested when it was over that he might hang up his duties after his 40th Open at St. Andrews next summer. As fans, we don’t want to “let him go.”
BOGEY: Patrick Reed. On a course where he won the R&A Junior Open in 2006, Reed took himself out with a bogey-triple finish Thursday. At No. 10 in points he’s fallen just outside the Ryder Cup bubble.
BIRDIE: Masters. McIlroy earning the third piece of the career slam focuses even more attention on his return to Augusta seeking the last leg in the place he came painfully close to winning his first major in 2011.
BIRDIE: St. Andrews. Old Course will have a lot to celebrate next year with McIlroy’s defense, Watson’s swan song and perhaps a female member of the R&A Golf Club should the September vote break properly.