The Open: Rory McIlroy dreamt about seeing name on trophy
To win the open would top everything, says Rory as he aims for third major.
With low cloud framing the Welsh hills beyond the River Dee, the westerly view from Hoylake could pass for the set of Game of Thrones, a threatening, dark landscape upon which the big dogs of the golfing clans are converging to settle once and for all who will rule this land.
McIlroy and McDowell of Ulster, Rose and Donald from the south, and from the east, across the sea in distant Germania, the mighty Teuton Kaymer appears with a game to lay them all to rest.
Did we mention Tiger and Phil, oh yes, and Adam, too? Either by reputation or form the biggest names in golf meet at the oldest tournament of them all in what threatens to be a championship for the ages.
The weather cannot make up its mind. If the air is as freakishly still as it was on Tuesday, the soul fears for Royal Liverpool. If it gusts as it did on Monday, it is the players who shall need counselling. But what a peak the season reaches at the year's third and purest major.
For the British and Irish in particular, reared on a diet of burnished fairways, hillocks and gorse, the Claret Jug is cherished above all.
"I remember growing up as a kid watching [Nick] Faldo win. Watching Darren [Clarke] having a chance at Troon. It's the only one played outside of the States, and it's played on links. It's the oldest and probably has the richest history of all of them," McIlroy said in a moment of wistful reflection.
"If I were to win my third major here, it would be the third leg of a career Grand Slam. Not many golfers have done that. So it would be special. It would be very important. Hopefully by the time I hang up my boots, I'd love to be able to get my name on that trophy."
Like all these boys, McIlroy knows the value of a major win. How one whets the appetite for another and how reaching three and beyond begins to separate the great from the extra special.
McIlroy threatens to be among the best there has ever been. His victory at the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA at Wentworth in May, was an important landmark on a course that he has not always enjoyed.
It was his second victory since the appalling slump of last year and it was achieved without recourse to the turbo button.
McIlroy has another gear to find. It's in there. We saw it in 2012. We have seen it in glimpses this year, when razing PGA National in the first round of the Honda Classic, shooting 63; ditto Muirfield Village, where he opened with another 63; and Royal Aberdeen last week, with that first-round 64.
On a beautiful, still Thursday morning at St Andrews four years ago, they stopped taking bets after McIlroy set fire to the Old Course with a 63.
And then he alerted us to the bad Friday syndrome that has scarred so many of his cards this year, shooting 80 in a second-round hooley.
McIlroy knows how to win. Two majors banked at 23, and by big margins, mark him out as a preternatural golfer. The third he talks about is only four good days away.
Justin Rose is a man in total command of his game. He bowls into this tournament a back-to-back winner, the latter in Scotland on the links of Royal Aberdeen.
Only the superstitious or those who fear the laws of probability baulk at the idea of Rose notching the hat-trick here.
Strip away the hocus-pocus, base judgement on evidence and talent, and none has a stronger case than Rose this week.
And what of Graeme McDowell, who won last time out in Paris a fortnight ago? McDowell took the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach when none spoke his name beforehand.
He went out in the final pairing with Adam Scott at Royal Lytham in 2012 and led the first round last year at Muirfield. What's more, this is a course that sets up beautifully for the "short knockers" as he disparagingly downgrades himself.
"Relatively short is a nicer way of putting it. I'm one of the short knockers. I accept that, no problems," he said.
"But I don't think there are a lot of opportunities to blow it past trouble here. I don't walk on to this golf course and kind of sigh and say, here we go again, this is 330 paradise."
McDowell took a while to process that Pebble Beach moment, the first win by a Briton at the US Open for 40 years. He has matured considerably since then on and off the course with marriage and his first child due.
This newly acquired sense of order has brought contentment to his life and renewed focus in the work place. And this is a pot he is aching to win.
"Augusta has mystique and tradition, as well," he said. "But The Open Championship seems to maintain that mystique as it goes around to various golf courses. It maintains that kind of pride, tradition and history, and the Claret Jug is a bit special.
"I'd give my left arm for the Claret Jug. I would, actually. That would be the end of my career, but it would be a nice way to go."
He is not alone in expressing that sentiment. McIlroy, Rose and McDowell have their majors. Lee Westwood and Luke Donald have none, a poor return for two vast talents who have at their peaks been good enough to reside at the best address in world golf, No 1.
Westwood is in no kind of form. It was much the same a year ago but he led by three after six holes on the final day before finishing third.
Donald has two top fives in the past five years. The pedigree is there. Phil Mickelson won at 43, Ernie Els and Clarke both at 42. Donald is a pup at 36.
The clock is crowding Westwood but he is not done yet. It's not just about you, Tiger.