Rory McIlroy held off a valiant charge from Sergio Garcia on an intriguing final day to claim his first Open title and join Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only three golfers in history to win three different majors by the age of 25.
The Northern Irishman, whose lead at one point was cut to just two strokes, held his nerve in fine style to card a final-round 71, finishing two shots ahead of Ryder Cup teammate Garcia, who impressed at Royal Liverpool all week but will again be left to wonder what might have been following yet another major near-miss for the Spaniard.
Fowler & Woods
America's Rickie Fowler also finished on -15 alongside Garcia after a bogey-free 67, ensuring he became for the first player since Woods in '05 to record three top-five finishes in the season's first three major championships - further evidence that he himself is not far away from a maiden win in one golf's most prestigious events.
Woods, who had no hope of contending on Sunday following consecutive rounds of over par, eventually carded an early-morning 75 to finish in 69th place - his worst finish in any major where he has played all four rounds. However, having just returned from life-changing back surgery, alarm bells will not be ringing inside the 14-time major champion's head just yet.
Victor Dubuisson (70), Graeme McDowell (67), Shane Lowry (65) and Edoardo Molinari (68) provided Paul McGinley with plenty of reasons to be cheerful ahead of this autumn's contest with the USA, all finishing inside the top 10 at Royal Liverpool.
But McGinley will be left purring at the new Open champion's performance this week around the Wirral links, as McIlroy provided everyone who has watched him play the past four days with a timely reminder why he is widely regarded as the heir to Woods' throne at the top of world golf.
Starting the day six ahead of playing partner Fowler, McIlroy made the perfect start when he rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt to stretch his lead to seven. For the fourth day in a row, conditions favoured low scoring and the Northern Irishman's start could have signalled a runaway Sunday similar to Martin Kaymer's at last month's US Open.
What transpired was from a stroll for the 25 year old, though, as Garcia made in-roads on McIlroy's lead early in his final round, birdieing holes one, three and five to halve the deficit in the blink of an eye.
And when McIlroy himself made his first bogey of the day, surprisingly at the par-five fifth which has played as one of the easiest holes all week, those who'd come to watch a McIlroy procession were suddenly checking their smartphones for Garcia's shortening odds.
A hole later, they decreased even further when the Ulsterman failed to convert his par putt from seven feet. Suddenly, the lead was just two, and McIlroy was one of just two players inside the top 20 over par for his round.
If the difference between the 21-year-old Holywood-born golfer who blew a four-shot lead at Augusta in 2011 and his older self was not apparent over the past three days, it certainly showed at the seventh when he missed the green in a difficult spot. A sublime chip left him a crucial tap-in par that immediately stopped a rot that was threatening to escalate.
Garcia, meanwhile, solidified his brilliant start, finding fairways and greens to par his way to the turn and record an outward nine of 32 - just what the doctor ordered for the Spaniard who has on so many occasions failed to deliver his best when in contention on the Sunday of a major championship.
McIlroy needed something to happen before he reached the halfway point of his final round, if only to ease any doubts that may have been creeping into his head following an uncomfortable, but by no means disastrous, opening eight holes.
At the ninth, he got what he needed. His iron found the heart of the green, leaving him 15-foot and more for birdie - which he duly converted, to his obvious relief. A level-par front nine meant a four-stroke advantage over Garcia as he headed for Hoylake's curtain call.
In the mix
If that birdie had people crowning him Phil Mickelson's successor, though, Garcia made sure those anointing their new champion were severely premature when he found the 10th green in two and holed his 12-foot putt for eagle. A vigorous fist pump followed; he was right in the championship with eight holes of the 143rd Open to play, two adrift of McIlroy.
For someone who has suffered so many setbacks in their quest for a first major win, no one can question his resolve, or how much he wants one of golf's major honours. At his next came a moment that should endear him to fans of this sport the world over.
After finding another fairway, he took aim with his iron and despite appearing to strike it well, he pleaded with it to be good and shouted "please! please! please!". His pleads fell on deaf ears though, as his ball came to rest a club short, and although he nearly holed his putt from off the green, time was beginning to run out.
McIlroy made birdie at ten for the third time this week to give himself breathing space, as did his partner Fowler, who played astutely all week but admitted post-round that he "hit the gas" a little too late.
Northern Ireland's Prodigal Son lead the Open championship by three with eight to play, and with Royal Liverpool's three-hole finish including two par fives, the odds were once again stacked heavily in McIlroy's favour.
A bogey at 14, however, left the door slightly ajar. But Garcia, peering through that door all day without fully being able to announce his presence, often shoots himself in the foot at these points - unfortunately, he did it again.
Standing on the par-three 15th, arguably the easiest on the course, with just a wedge in hand, he misjudged his tee shot and found the green-side pot bunker, and when he left his first effort in the sand, the groans from those following signalled the end of his challenge. He valiantly got up-and-down for his only blemish of the day, but the end was nigh.
To his credit, he birdied 16 to bounce back immediately, but with McIlroy's powerful driving and his precise long-iron play not deserting him, coupled with the two par fives to come, it appeared only eagles would suffice for the evidently loveable Garcia.
He birdied 18, setting the clubhouse lead at -15. The thousand of fans in the amphitheatre surrounding the last green rose to applaud yet another near miss for the man who seems, at this moment in time anyway, destined to be the best player ever to not win a major.
From then on, it was a question of whether McIlroy could hold his nerve. He found the 16th green in two, lagged his eagle putt to tap-in distance and led by three as he headed to the 72nd hole.
And despite that lead being cut to two thanks to Garcia's closing birdie, the race was run. His second found the right-hand bunker but his sublime effort settled eight-foot from the hole - the rest was a formality.
As he tapped in for par, he turned to his family watching on green side, pumping both fists. This guy is the real deal.
The Claret Jug will follow him around the world for the next 12 months, providing him with the best possible place to drink his alcohol from in the coming year. "Red wine first," he admitted in his press conference afterwards.
With his first Open win, he becomes only the third player in history to win three majors by the age of 25. The other two? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
At Augusta next year, he will go in search of the career Grand Slam - something he is certain to achieve, whether it be in a year's time or beyond.
The past four days will leave everyone wondering, what might this young Northern Irish golfing sensation achieve in a career that is already in fifth gear?
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