The shot I'll always remember is the approach into the 18th green on Saturday evening, a laser through some gunmetal Liverpool firmament that was impossibly straight. The ball rocketed off Rory McIlroy's 5-iron, a ridiculous club selection from 239 yards away, and never left the flagstick. There was no draw, no fade, no wobble or movement in the wind, no kick off a mound, no run and roll up off a slope. The ball flew straight. It bounced straight.
#RoryMcIlroy 2nd to 18 set up eagle finish @RLGCHoylake #TheOpen in this form so brilliant to watch @GettySport pic.twitter.com/311PpZrCmA— David Cannon (@Cannonball63) July 19, 2014
It was in that third round finish, and specifically that shot, that the difference between Rory McIlroy and all the other world-class players, multiple major winners, top prospects and Hall-of-Famers, was so easily in view and discernible. McIlroy is the best golfer in the world, now and for the next several years.
With the sun setting on the Tiger Woods era, golf is eager to find some form of replacement that just doesn't exist. There isn't another Tiger Woods coming, and there never will be. But in our desperation to find who's next, we hype and pump up all the "young talent." Who from the crop of players 30 and under, 25 and under, is next in line in a sport that's infatuated with its history and having a dominant face for each era of that history. He may have wandered off for a year, and there's a gaggle of talented young American players, but Rory McIlroy was always going to be the next in line. His best is better, a kind of machine-like Tiger Woods inevitability sets in when he grabs the lead and that happened before we ever got to Sunday at Hoylake.
The shot into the 18th finished a three-hole stretch that hammered this fact into our consciousness, where it should remain even if another young player picks up a major or two in the near future. The 5-iron from 239 yards came just moments after McIlroy ripped a 4-iron from 252 yards at the 16th hole. He poured in the putts for eagle on both. This annihilated the hopes of a loaded leaderboard around him, much of which was made up of that "young talent."
After he had deflated the chances of so many world class players, McIlroy would even admit that he thought the shot on the 18th "deserved an eagle."
The 18th wasn't a hard hole, and neither was the 16th. The best players in the field made birdie, and had to in order to stay on first page of the leaderboard. But no one was able to eagle either on Saturday. Rory eagled both. It was the signature sequence of his win, and the signature moment was that final blow to the chasers from a 5-iron into the 18th green.
Some five hours after Tiger Woods hacked and cursed his way through Royal Liverpool on the way to his private jet home, McIlroy claimed the third leg of a career grand slam, joining Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers ever to get there by age 25. Back in March, when Tiger was injured but we didn't yet know that he'd miss the first two majors, I wrote that the biggest problem facing the PGA Tour was getting past Woods. That's not going to happen -- there's no solution to maintain and hold the line without Tiger. The spike in interest around the rise of the Tiger Woods era is going away when he does too. That's not the fault of whoever comes next.
The British Open
Rory is the next in line, and he's actually already here, joining Jack and Tiger with the first three legs of the slam at 25. Tiger had a different, transformative appeal to a widespread audience beyond golf. At the golf level, however, Rory does have many of the same dominant characteristics as Tiger. There's the power. He rips the ball off the tee in a way that Woods used to overwhelm his playing partners and opponents. At just 5'9, McIlroy led the entire field in driving distance this week, averaging 327.8 yards off the tee. That power off the tee is part of the way he destroys the par-5s, making eagles and birdies to grab the lead and get out in front early. He then preserved that with the Tiger-like inevitability that I mentioned was there this week. Also, on a superficial Rovellian #brand and aesthetic level, Rory will fly the Nike flag and be their top player and earner well after Woods is gone.
Unlike Tiger, we characterize Rory's approach as more artistic than scientific. He's not constantly tweaking his swing or working with his coach, relying more on feel and what has, almost unfairly for the rest of the world, come natural to him since he was young. He's not too wrapped up in the numbers and the tracking data points around his swing.
But we now have three major victories that could be characterized as clinical, done without flair or Sunday fireworks like we got from Phil Mickelson's charge at the Open last year. Sergio Garcia made Rory think a few times on Sunday, but neither player really ever felt much change from the way things started: Rory out in front and on a formal 18-hole march to make it official.
With as much as 25 more years of golf left, Rory is going to stack up several more major championships. Joining the list of five players to achieve the career grand slam seems more likely than not. The Masters and Augusta is suited to his game, power off the tee, dominance of the par-5s, and ability to work a high ball right-to-left. But first there's the PGA Championship in three weeks, and Valhalla will set up for his game just as well. It's a long but easier course and Rory will be the heavy favorite there, and probably at all future majors for awhile.
That's a status Tiger Woods used to hold, and may hold again sometime soon. But this week we got to see the next in line reaffirm his spot there, above all the other ascendant talent around him. Nothing captured that separation more than Saturday's finish and that shot into the 18th.