Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Armed with a 6-stroke lead entering the final round, pundits wondered what Rory McIlroy's game plan would be on Sunday at the Open Championship.
Would he get conservative because of his lead? Or would he continue to overpower Royal Liverpool?
Those questions were answered on the first tee when McIlroy pulled out driver and crushed another prodigious drive down the middle of the fairway. Nearly an inch of rain fell after Saturday's play and with the softer fairways, it was an easy decision for the now three-time major champion.
What also made it an easy choice was the fact that he hit 66 percent of his fairways for the week, and averaged 327.8 yards per drive. McIlroy brought Hoylake to its knees as he averaged 45 more yards per drive than the field.
After his huge opening drive, McIlroy made birdie on the first to push his lead to seven. He nearly gave it all away, but with two par-5s in the last three holes, his length rescued him when he needed it most.
McIlroy reached the 16th in two shots and 2-putted for birdie. At the 551- yard par-5 closing hole, McIlroy was in a greenside bunker with two huge iron shots.
He blasted out of the sand and had three putts to win from about 10 feet. He took two to get down, and that wrapped up his third major championship.
McIlroy joined Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only three men to own three legs of the career grand slam by the age of 25. With the next major in three weeks, McIlroy is already looking forward to winning another PGA Championship.
But, he also looking at Augusta National and the Masters next April.
"Even though there's still one major left this year that I desperately want to try and win, I'm really looking forward to that drive up Magnolia Lane next April and trying to complete the career grand slam," McIlroy said.
If he doesn't win the Masters next year, it won't be the end of the world because that storyline will remain until he does win the Masters.
And to think, he could already have a green jacket to his name if it weren't for a final round 80 in 2011.
This victory at Hoylake wasn't dissimilar to his U.S. Open and PGA Championship wins. In his three major victories, McIlroy broke par in 11 of the 12 rounds, and has been in the 60s for 10 of the 12.
Even his loss at Augusta was similar as he broke par in the first three rounds that week. But a wayward tee shot on the 10th in the final round ended that dream.
Back to Hoylake, while he was driving the ball tremendous lengths, McIlroy was also converting his chances around the greens. He may have hit just 68 percent of greens in regulation, but his 34 one-putts tied him for third and his 20 birdies were good for a share of fourth place for the week.
It's an easy game with short irons in your hand, but he wasn't just knocking it tight with wedges. At the end of the third round, he had 252 and 239 yards into the 16th and 18th greens respectively.
McIlroy hit 4- and 5-iron for those two shots, and was inside 20 feet both times. He drained both putts to lead by six heading to the final round, and as he joked on Sunday, "I'm glad I gave myself a big enough cushion."
In three short weeks, McIlroy will headline the field at Valhalla for the PGA Championship. Tiger Woods beat Bob May there in 2000, as they both ended at 18-under par.
If conditions are similar this year, that sets up well for McIlroy, who has averaged 15-under par in his three major championship wins. Valhalla is a course that McIlory can overpower, and if he hits his driver there like he did at Hoylake, the only battle will be for second place behind him.
McIlroy stated on Sunday, that he hopes he can continue to play like he did this week and at Wentworth, where he won earlier this year. If he follows up on what he did after his PGA Championship win, the remainder of this season will be special for the Ulsterman.
After his PGA Championship win, he had two victories and four top-3 finishes in his next six starts. If McIlroy can match that, the 2014 season will be one to remember.
No doubt he will remember the last four days at Hoylake fondly.
TIGER, PHIL MAY NOT MAKE RYDER CUP TEAM
There are two big tournaments, the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the PGA Championship, left for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to play their way onto Tom Watson's U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Mickelson is much closer to making the team, or even being a captain's pick than Woods is. Mickelson stands 11th on the points list with the top nine being automatic picks.
Taking players that are hot and closing tournaments well are two things Watson is looking at for players on his team. Mickelson is far from hot as he has finished 11th, 28th, 11th and 23rd in his last four events, and hasn't had a top-10 finish since Abu Dhabi back in January. And he is just 138th on the PGA Tour in final round scoring average (71.82)
Then there is Woods. Having missed significant time this year due to back surgery, Woods stands 70th on the Ryder Cup points list. In six starts this year, his best finish was a tie for 25th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
If you look at the 2013 season, Woods collected points in the four majors, where he finished 4th, 32nd, 6th and 40th.
He said over the weekend at the Open Championship that he'd like to win his next two starts and making the team would be taken care of. That isn't out of the question because he has won seven times in Akron and won his second PGA Championship at this year's venue, Valhalla, in 2000.
If one or both were to miss the team, what would that mean? In Mickelson's case, it would mean that he would fail to make a national team for the first time since the 1993 Ryder Cup. He has played on all 10 U.S. Presidents Cup teams, and the last nine Ryder Cup squads.
Woods has played for 15 of the last 16 national teams, missing just the 2008 Ryder Cup with a broken leg.
While those two stalwarts are in danger of missing the team, eight of the 10 players in the mix with Mickelson that are ranked between 10th and 20th on the points list would be making their first national team appearance.
Not to slight the other possible candidates for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, but it would seem unlikely that Watson would pass over both Woods and Mickelson.
Unless Woods does win the next two events, Mickelson should be a lock for one of Watson's three captains picks. Watson could go with younger, fresher blood for the team, but it would be hard to overlook both Woods and Mickelson's history of playing on the national teams.
- One note that was overlooked on Sunday, was the fact the McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, the final group at the Open Championship, played the final round in under four hours. You don't see many final rounds like that on any tour, and you rarely see that in a major. The benign conditions and McIlroy's big early lead didn't hurt the pace of play.
- While Woods and Mickelson are on the outside looking in on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, Ian Poulter, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood are all outside the top nine spots for the European Ryder Cup team. With his 12-3-0 career record, Poulter is a virtual lock as one of Paul McGinley's captains picks. Westwood is likely the odd man out as he has missed his last four cuts and failed to make the weekend in five of his last seven events overall.