Rory McIlroy's Open win puts him on the path to superstardom
Rory McIlroy is no stranger to hype, but he knows the machine will be on overdrive when he turns up at the Masters next April.
McIlroy's commanding performance to clinch a first Claret Jug at Hoylake secured the third leg of golf's career Grand Slam and all eyes are already turning towards Augusta and the one major he has yet to win.
The Northern Irishman became the third player after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to win three majors by the age of 25 and the first European to win three different major titles.
In joining such exalted company as Nicklaus and Woods, McIlroy confirmed he is on a similar path to superstardom.
"I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly," he said.
|Racking up the stats - Rory McIlroy|
|Second time he has been start-to-finish winner of a major after success at 2011 US Open||Becomes third Northern Irishman to win Open Championship after Fred Daly (1947) and Darren Clarke (2011)|
|Third youngest player, aged 25, to win three of the four majors after Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24)||Sixth European Tour member to win three or more majors after Nick Faldo (six), Seve Ballesteros (five), Ernie Els (four), Vijay Singh (three) and Padraig Harrington (three)|
|Beats Ballesteros's record (26) as youngest European Tour member to win three majors||Tenth start-to-finish winner of Open Championship|
|Thirteenth victory as a professional||Seventh European Tour victory at 138th attempt|
|Goes to the top of the Race to Dubai money list||Climbs from eighth to second in world rankings|
As a child prodigy in Holywood, supported by parents Gerry and Rosie, who took multiple jobs to fund his golf, McIlroy was always destined to be a star.
And, to an extent, his career has mirrored that of his boyhood idol Woods.
When the 22-year-old McIlroy won his first major at the 2011 US Open, he became the youngest winner since 1923 and emulated the manner of Woods' groundbreaking 15-shot win in 2000, breaking a host of scoring records himself including lowest total under par. He followed it up with another record-breaking eight-shot victory in the 2012 US PGA and has now become the first start-to-finish winner of the Open since Woods in 2005.
Three majors puts McIlroy alongside the likes of Padraig Harrington, Nick Price, Payne Stewart and Vijay Singh. Twenty-seven players have won more majors (including those events that counted as majors before the Masters was introduced in 1934).
"A superstar in my opinion is someone with upwards of five majors," said BBC commentator Ken Brown.
But only five players - Nicklaus, Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen - have won all four of golf's modern majors. Nicklaus and Woods have done it three times.
McIlroy and five-time major winner Phil Mickelson are the only two of the current crop of players with three legs of the career Grand Slam.
"It's a pretty impressive thing for him to do, especially given that the one he's missing is the Masters," said the left-hander.
Mickelson surprised many, not least himself, when he won the Open last year and said it made him a "complete" player. The American, however, must overcome something of a nemesis to reach his fourth leg of the Slam - namely, the US Open. With a record six runner-up finishes, the pressure only becomes greater in his "home" Open every year. And at 44, age is not on his side.
For McIlroy, the lush lawns of Augusta represent a course virtually tailor-made for his game - long hitting, high ball flight, right-to-left shape.
McIlroy famously came close to winning the Masters in 2011 before blowing a four-shot lead going into the final round with a back-nine meltdown. Since then, he's finished 40th, 25th and eighth this year and says he is slowly getting more comfortable on the treacherous greens.
"With his length, and how well he plays that golf course, that definitely will happen and probably soon," said Mickelson.
Woods completed his career Grand Slam at 24 when he added the 2000 US Open and the Open at St Andrews to the 1997 Masters and 1999 US PGA. Victory at the US PGA in the summer of 2000 and a win at the Masters the following year gave him what became known as the "Tiger Slam" - holding all four titles at the same time, if not in the same calendar year. The holy grail remains winning all four in the same year.
|Players to win all four golf majors|
|Masters||US Open||The Open||PGA|
McIlroy is certainly on the right track, but it is too early to judge his place in the golfing firmament.
Spanish great Seve Ballesteros was only 26 when he won his third major, and had the world at his feet. But despite his genuine superstar status he ended his career with only two more. It took Mickelson until the age of 33, and 42 attempts, before he won the first of his majors. Number five came last year at the age of 43.
The next checkpoint for McIlroy will be when he turns 30. Nicklaus had won seven of his record 18 majors by then; Woods had 10 majors by the same age.
Stranded on 14 majors since 2008, Woods advises that people judge his career when it is over.
At 38, many believe it could already be over in terms of major victories, and McIlroy has made no secret of the fact he would like to be the one to fill Woods' place and dominate the game.
"I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors regularly," he said, sitting next to the Claret Jug at Hoylake on Sunday evening.
Mickelson is unsure anyone can really fill the void left by Woods' decline.
"We used to say there will never be another Nicklaus, and then Tiger came along," said Mickelson. "You never want to discount the possibility of someone coming along and dominating. But nobody has really asserted themselves the way Tiger did for such a long period of time.
"We'll have great performances, like Rory this week, like Martin Kaymer at the US Open. But it's very hard to do that week in, week out like Tiger did. That's why it was so impressive."
|BBC chief sports writer Tom Fordyce|
|"Forget the relentless aggression or the pursuit of record-breaking winning margins. On the last day of the Open, a one-shot win is as sweet as six."|
For his part, Woods likened McIlroy's talent to that of the mercurial Mickelson. There one minute, gone the next.
"He has his hot weeks and he has his off weeks," he said. "Very similar to what Phil does. That's just the nature of how he plays the game."
McIlroy had an "off-year" in 2013 - precipitated by a combination of off-course issues, including a switch to Nike equipment and legal wrangles with his management company.
He described missing the cut in the Open at Muirfield as his "lowest moment" after describing himself as "brain dead" on the golf course. But 12 months on, he is golf's brightest star again.
"All golfers feel the same frustration," said five-time Open champion Tom Watson. "You go through the times when you couldn't break an egg. And finally all of a sudden the light will switch on and it gets easy. That's what happened to me many times in my career. It seems like it's happened to Rory."
Watson won eight majors in all and is considered one of the game's greats. But the career Grand Slam eluded him, with just the US PGA missing from his collection.
Even the legends find it tough at times. For now, McIlroy is riding high.