LITTLE ROCK — Not on par with the “Drive,” or the “Miracle on Markham,” but Rory McIlroy’s response halfway through the final round of the British Open will stand for his defining moment until he crafts something better.
A deficit and so-so play shaped the aforementioned dramas authored by John Elway and Matt Jones. With McIlroy, the backdrop was a previous disaster under similar circumstances.
Nothing against the 25-year-old, but I was hoping for a gut check of some sort when he started the final round six in front. Leading the 2011 U.S. Open by eight with 18 to play, he won by eight. Leading the 2012 PGA by three with 18 to go, he won by eight. That says his “A” game is unbeatable, but nothing about his play under the gun.
If a victory at Royal Liverpool was going to put McIlroy in the company of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, he should be tested the way they were when they won one of their first three majors.
In the 1962 U.S. Open, Nicklaus started the fourth round in fifth. He shot 69 to tie Arnold Palmer and then faced down America’s favorite in an 18-hole playoff to record his first major.
In the 1999 PGA, Woods was four shots back after the first round and tied for the lead after 54 holes. He manufactured a 71 and held off scissor-kicking Sergio Garcia by one for major No. 2.
Garcia repeated the role of antagonist on Sunday, challenging McIlroy while playing smack in front of the leader. That said, never was the situation as dire as it was for Elway or Jones:
• Jan. 11, 1987, AFC Championship game. Cleveland led Denver 20-13 when the Broncos started from their 2 with barely 5 minutes remaining. Elway, only 16 of 29 at that point, completed 6 of 9, including a 5-yard TD pass, and ran twice for 20 yards.
• Nov. 29, 2002, SEC Western Division championship at stake. Arkansas trailed 20-14 with less than a minute to play with the ball at its 19. Jones, who completed two of his first 13, found Richard Smith for 50 and DeCori Birmingham for the last 31 yards and the TD.
Starting out Sunday, McIlroy seemed at least one double bogey from any legitimate threat. Garcia is supposed to be an improved putter, but his 32 on the front nine was a surprise. Combined with McIlroy’s 35, the lead was four with nine to play.
Standing in the 10th fairway, McIlroy couldn’t miss Garcia’s eagle that reduced the lead to to two for the first time in almost 24 hours. I wondered if he would remember standing on the 10th tee at the 2011 Masters, his four-shot lead down to one. That day, his tee shot was left of everything and he made triple bogey on his way to 80 and a tie for 15th.
Sunday, his response to Garcia’s eagle was a sky-high iron — one of many — and a two-putt birdie.
His performance doesn’t signal his mastery of links golf because his soaring iron shots often don’t work on British Open layouts, but before interpreting that as a knock on the victory, know there was much to like. At the start, there was his confident attack-mode with the driver. Before and after were his honest words.
On Saturday, he initiated talk about the British giving him three legs of the career grand slam and that it would be neat to pursue the fourth leg at the Masters in April. Most would have said something about staying in the moment and not admitted to thinking about what might be.
On Thursday, when there was much ado about his Friday flops, he said, “It’s all in my head. I may be putting a bit too much pressure on myself …” Others would have kissed off the second-round scores as coincidence.
If McIlroy continues to drive straight and think straight, comparisons with Nicklaus and Woods are just beginning.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.