The 143rd Open Championship was packed with good vibes.
Rory McIlroy played the role of superstar, driving the golf ball in otherworldly fashion, launching himself into golf's pantheon with his third major before he turned 26. Rickie Fowler continued to mature right before our early rising (at least on the West Coast) eyes, securing a second consecutive runner-up to go with his U.S. Open silver medal and his top-five Masters finish, brimming with potential glory, also just 25.
And then there was Sergio.
Somehow, despite yet another major come and gone without the 34-year-old Spaniard seizing the moment, despite yet another chance to claim the major championship we've been waiting for since the 20th century, even Sergio Garcia came out of Royal Liverpool pleased with himself, and with rose petals tossed his way.
"I did almost everything I could," Sergio opined, adding: "Everybody wants to make second a negative. Not at all."
Say what? A Sergio stall at a major, and nobody talks negative?
Man. When Sergio, the major champion of self-pity, the man who's won the Grand Slam of petulance in past majors, comes out of a second-place finish happy with his effort and earning plaudits, you know Hoylake was brimming with positivity.
How much of the praise for Sergio – "I see a more mature player," said Curtis Strange on ESPN; "He used to get in his own way; he doesn't anymore," said Paul Azinger – was the product of a carefully orchestrated Sergio makeover, it's hard to tell. Certainly, Garcia made sure to swing by McIlroy's Saturday interview with the BBC and give him a noogie, so everyone would see how free and easy Garcia is. And certainly, Garcia made sure to greet McIlroy at the scorer's trailer after Rory holed out on Sunday to congratulate him in front of the cameras. And certainly, Garcia made sure to stand next to Rory under the grandstand as they awaited the trophy ceremony, yukking it up next to the phenom to show what a good sport he was.
But wait. That's me being cynical, isn't it?
It's hard not to be. Ever since Garcia burst on the scene in 1999 at Medinah, trying to chase down Tiger Woods and set us up for a decade of Sergio-Tiger rivalry – the new Arnie-Jack, the new Faldo-Norman – we've waited for him to deliver on the grandest of stages. He was supposed to be Spain's new Olazabal, Spain's new Ballesteros. Outside of the Ryder Cup, where Sergio has been Monty-like with his brilliance, we haven't seen it.
Instead, we've seen mostly whines and cries about how unfair it all was for Sergio.
The wait for Sergio at a major has gone on so long, we've gone from dial-up to WiFi; from land lines to SnapChats; from Rory as a 10-year-old to Rory kissing the Claret Jug on Sunday at Royal Liverpool.
We've gone from "El Nino" to "El Middle Age-o."
So what to make of his 68-70-69-66 turn at Hoylake, a score bettered by only one player in the world?
Maybe it is time to credit Sergio for his perseverance. Lord knows he's had hurdles, most of them self-imposed. We weren't the ones spitting into golf cups, after all.
His "fried chicken" remark about Tiger last year maybe was the turning point, in retrospect. Things got so bad for Sergio's image that the bottoming out seems to have made him emerge, on the other side, a slightly changed person and player.
Certainly the golf has. Since then, his ball-striking, tee to green, has been excellent. He won in Qatar in January, ending a two-year-plus win drought. And he's been all over the top of leaderboards this year – fourth at the HSBC in China; third in Houston; third at Sawgrass; second in Hartford earlier this summer, and now a tie with Fowler at Hoylake for "Best Golfer, Non-Rory Division."
And yet, how he will rue some aspects of his Sunday 66. Hoylake was soft and ripe, and after Sergio eagled No. 10 he was just two shots back of Rory. He was making good on a ballsy challenge. After all, he started the day seven shots back.
It was that eagle that caused Azinger to say on ESPN, "I think Sergio is beginning to feel the weight and magnitude of what could be."
Just a year earlier, Phil Mickelson played inter-galactically great golf to shoot 66 at a brutal Muirfield, seizing the Claret Jug from five shots back. Could Sergio do the same? After all, Phil didn't win a major until just before his 34th birthday, and now has five. Sergio just turned 34 earlier this year. Surely, it isn't too late for him to deliver some major haymakers.
At No. 11, Sergio showed his hand, let us know how much it all meant. He shouted at his approach, pleading for it, "Be Good, Be Good, Please … please!" Azinger joked that the plea almost qualified as begging. The shot wasn't as good as he hoped, and his birdie try burned the edge. A crazy lucky bounce out of the grandstand on No. 12 helped him save par. The new Sergio acknowledged the humor, kissed his golf ball and threw it into the stands. It was on.
But at No. 15, tragedy.
He fanned a wedge at the par-3 into a pot bunker. And once in the bunker, he decelerated and left his second shot still in the sand. On the tee box, Rory watched, impassively. Sergio would make bogey, and his dream was over.
It was not lost on golf historians that 15 years earlier, Sergio made a birdie on the Sunday charge at Medinah and pointed at Tiger on the tee box, cheeky, brassy, impetuous. Fifteen years later, after yet another failure on the grand stage at a critical moment, Sergio didn't glance back at Rory. He accepted his fate. He had no choice.
Instead, when he birdied 18 to finish with a 66, he made a 360-degree wave and blown-kiss tribute to the fans in the massive wraparound grandstand, patting his heart as they cheered him. He was Sergio, appreciator of the moment.
Look at his ledger now. It must eat at him. He owns four runners-up at majors, watching as Tiger won at Medinah in 1999, and as Padraig Harrington won at Carnoustie in 2007 and Harrington again at Oakland Hills in 2008, and now Rory at Hoylake in 2014.
In the movie "Amadeus," the F. Murray Abraham character plays Salieri, a talented composer who is cursed with the awareness that Mozart, his peer, is a genius, and he is not. Poor Sergio. He must feel like he's played Salieri to two different generations of Mozarts; Tiger and now Rory. His newly positive attitude, and the impressed words of onlookers judging his behavior, will have to somehow salve that wound.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
69-77-73-75 – 6-over 294, Tiger Woods, 69th place, 2014 Open Championship, Royal Liverpool, Liverpool, England.
Wait. Tiger was at the British Open?
That might have been the quietest 72 holes in Tiger's major championship history. After Thursday's 69, did you even see him hit a shot?
Let's be honest. You'd have been a fool to think Tiger, four months removed from microdiscectomy surgery, would be a factor at Hoylake. It's just too big of a surgery and too soon since he had it. Why he even played is a better question. But, Tiger's gonna be Tiger. Look at the bright side: He made the cut. And he beat U.S. Open champ Martin Kaymer, who finished 70th.
Some ignominious factoids for your head: Tiger's winning score at Hoylake in 2006 was a cool 24 shots lower than his 2014 Hoylake run. And Tiger failed to beat 2014 Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, who finished at 1-over 289, five shots ahead of Tiger. Watson is 64 years old, and tasked with the question of whether to include Tiger on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
As John Fogerty might have sang, or not: "Put me in Coach/I'm ready to play/Just not as good as you …"
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
We don't have to go far for this one. While Fowler will certainly rue some missed putts en route to his otherwise excellent 67, and while even Rory would like a few back – his back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 5 and 6 – it all comes back to a pot bunker on No. 15.
Sergio was 5-under for his round, and had sliced five shots off of McIlroy's seven-shot lead. A two-shot lead for Rory was nowhere near comfortable as Sergio teed off on the par-3 15th hole … and leaked his tee shot into a pot bunker.
Forget that he left his second in the pot bunker for the key moment of failure. The problem started with the tee shot. A check of the top-10 finishers at Hoylake showed that No. 15 was not a problem on Sunday. Fowler, Jim Furyk, Marc Leishman, Charl Schwartzel and Shane Lowry – top-10 finishers all – each birded the hole.
Sergio was cooked after the bogey, and a bad swing at a critical time.
So let's go back out to 15 tee, remind Sergio that if he ever wants to shake this majors thing, he's got to deliver at moments like this, tell him it's nothing but a little old 161-yard hole, remind him that pot bunkers can be death and … give that man a mulligan!
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"Process and spot … those were the two words I had in my head." – Rory McIlroy, revealing his two-word secret to Tom Rinaldi on ESPN.
We'll go with this one instead of Rinaldi's one-question-too-many moment after Rory teared up mentioning his Mom. When Rors said winning in front of his Mom for the first time made it his most meaningful, he choked up almost like a little boy in a very sweet moment. It would have been the perfect walk-off moment for Rinaldi, but he sensed blood in the water and asked a follow-up in a blatant attempt to make McIlroy break down. Rory didn't, and instead all we had was a reporter who didn't know the first rule of show biz is to leave us wanting more.
So let's forget that and instead go to Rinaldi's best moment: Asking Rory what were the "two words" Rory promised to reveal were on his mind all week at the Open.
In a dubious move, McIlroy acquiesced and told him the two words were "process" or "PRO-cess" in his Ulster accent, and "spot."
"Process" was what he reminded himself over every shot, to avoid thinking beyond the moment or thinking about the result. And "spot" was picking a spot on every putt and putting to it.
It was all so unremarkable, it came off as a letdown, like seeing Oz as a sad old man behind the curtain. Sometimes, mystery is better. If Rory had said, "I'll never tell," we'd have spent the rest of our golf fan lives wondering what the two words were.
"Seek" and "destroy?"
"Tiger" and "sucks?"
"Rosebud" and "Rosebud?"
"Spaghetti" and "meatballs?"
"Hall" and "Oates?"
Alas. Now we know. Rory's words were the same ones you get from buying Dr. Bob Rotella's books on positive thinking and Dave Stockton's books on short game tips. Oh, well. We forgive you, Rors. Now, off to work on our process and picking our spots.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It comes at us fast and furious now, golf fans. Off to the Canadian Open, and then here it comes: WGC at Bridgestone the next week, the PGA Championship at Valhalla the very next week (!), a ho-hum week at Greensboro and then the FedExCup playoffs. It's the stretch run. Rory's winning majors. No time to be soft. Make that couch comfortable!
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- Rory McIlroy