Rory McIlroy plans to emulate Tiger Woods' major haul
Some chuckled and others nodded sagely when Padraig Harrington, cradling the Claret Jug for the first time, gestured to 18-year-old Rory McIlroy and said: "I'm glad to get my hands on one of these before he starts winning them."
That was on the 18th at Carnoustie in 2007. Harrington has just completed a famous sudden-death victory over Sergio Garcia to register the first victory in 60 years at The Open by an Irish golfer, while McIlroy collected the silver medal awarded to the leading amateur.
Well, seven years later, that day has come!
For sure, McIlroy's already won twice at the Major Championships, romping to record-shattering victories at the 2010 US Open at Congressional and the 2012 PGA Championship on Kiawah Island.
Yet even though Sunday's at Hoylake was achieved by just two strokes, instead of the remarkable eight which separated the young Ulsterman from his closest pursuers at Congressional and Kiawah, it was every bit as impressive. If not more so.
McIlroy, an outrageously gifted showman who loves to take on swashbuckling shots, played prudently and with patience through all four rounds, striking only when the moment was right.
He applied himself so staunchly to the game plan, never once resorting to panic or impetuosity, that it suggested a new era has dawned in world golf.
The pragmatic McIlroy we saw at Royal Liverpool didn't need to shoot the lights out on Sunday to win The Open. That knowledge, combined with his refreshed dedication to the game following the end of his engagement, makes the 25-year-old more dangerous than ever.
A new predator has been born. So don't be surprised if he snaps up the PGA title at Valhalla, a course which will suit him even better than Hoylake, then solves the riddle of the greens at Augusta and completes his career Grand Slam next April.
It was intriguing on Sunday to hear Tiger Woods offer his verdict on McIlroy's performance in emulating himself and Jack Nicklaus by completing three legs of a career Grand Slam by age 25.
Asked if he expected the Holywood native to go on and dominate Major Championships in the way he had done, Tiger was less than effusive.
"You can see, the way Rory plays is pretty aggressive," Woods said. "When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It's one or the other. If you look at his results, he's kind of that way.
"Very similar to what Phil (Mickelson) does, he has his hot weeks and he has his weeks where he's off."
The view that McIlroy, by nature, is and always will be a streaky player by nature has been around for some time and certainly suits Woods in his lifelong quest to match and beat the 18 Major Championships won by Jack Nicklaus.
Yet the 'new' McIlroy, the man who had dedicated himself to becoming, like Woods, a player who will compete in every tournament and, especially, every Major Championship he plays, represents the greatest obstacle to Tiger's hopes of winning four or more Major titles before his creaking body finally gives out.
Woods considered the question about McIlroy so significant, the answer he gave (not all of it's reproduced here) was by far was the longest in his media conference on Sunday after signing for the final round 75 that left him wallowing on six-over par in 69th place.
Regardless of the circumstances, Tiger doesn't waste time talking about losers. You can bet he views McIlroy as his greatest rival.
In the summer of 2013, as McIlroy approached rock-bottom in the deepest slump of his career, Harrington and Paul McGinley separately suggested he'd endure much less frustration by merely accepting his streaky similarity to Mickelson and shrugging it off.
The youngster adamantly disagreed. "I know I can play consistently at a high level," he insisted. "I know that. It's just a matter of bringing it out of myself.
"I've gone through periods where I finished in the top-five in 10 or 12 events and that's the sort of golf I want to get back to," he added. "I think that I've got the game and I'm a good enough player to give myself chances to win week in, week out."
It is this determination to draw every last drop out of his potential which drives McIlroy right now. He makes no secret of wanting to dominate the sport, saying: "I've talked about this in press conferences this year, that golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and try (to be that dominant figure).
"I want to be that person. I want to be the guy that goes on and wins Majors and wins them regularly. I'd love to be in that position," he explained.
"I've had chances before to kick-on from there. I did after my second Major at Kiawah. I kicked on for another six months and played really well."
Everyone knows what happened next. McIlroy, at World No 1, propelled to an entirely new financial level in his career with an endorsement deal from Nike and in love with Caroline Wozniacki, took a well-earned rest.
It took him more than 18 long months to get back into the winner's enclosure at a Major.
"I think every Major win is different," he mused. "Congressional was maybe silencing the doubters and battling some demons," he said.
"Kiawah was coming off a bit of a slump in form but still having a good year," McIlroy went on.
"It has been difficult at times since the start of 2013 but winning the Claret Jug makes it all worthwhile."
All that talk in the lead-up to the superlative back-to-back rounds of 66 which put McIlroy four clear was of the harrowing Friday setbacks he endured at Augusta, Quail Hollow, Sawgrass, Memorial and the Scottish Open.
Yet there an even more impressive trend developed in McIlroy's play this spring as he showed an agreeable tendency to fight back in the face of adversity.
Instead of pouting at misfortune, as he might have done in the past, he invariably soldiered on.
The most impressive of several examples of this came on Friday at Sawgrass when McIlroy dropped six shots in five holes on the front nine, then showed uncommon resilience by playing the final seven in four-under.
Since calling off his engagement to Wozniacki, ironically the weekend before his first victory of the year at Wentworth, McIlroy has immersed himself entirely in his golf. His confidence and resolve were reinforced on the Wirral Peninsula by weeks of intensive practice.
He described his performance in those two 66's at The Open as "solid and steady".
The same words apply to Saturday's 68 in which he stuck resolutely to his game plan as everyone else around him reaped plenty of birdies, before pressing the throttle down the stretch and surging six clear of the field Ferrari-style with two eagles in the final three holes.
Even when peril came knocking on Sunday with back-to-back bogeys on five and six, he remained unruffled, making a great up-and down out of a bunker for par at seven before landing sweet and significant birdies at nine and 10.
Never once did he seem stressed or threatened.
"I felt the same as I did the first few days. I felt very, very calm inside, incredibly serene," McIlroy explained.
"I knew I still had a bit of a gap, a bit of a cushion and I kept just telling myself, 'hit your shots, stick to what you're doing, execute your game plan, then everything will be okay."
Though he toasted the Claret Jug with family and friends in the house he rented close to the course, McIlroy's already looking forward to his next tournament, the World Golf Championship at Firestone on Thursday week.
As he explained on Sunday, once again: "Golf is what I think about when I get up in the morning and what I think of when I go to bed. I want desperately to be the best player that I can be."
Nobody, not even a fit Tiger, will fancy his chances of lifting Major trophies with the new, pragmatic Rory McIlroy on the prowl.