Rory McIlroy inches closer to history

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HOYLAKE, England -- Winning a major is supposed to leave welts. It's meant to draw blood. Its purpose in life is to reduce your nerves to paper shreds, to prematurely age you.

Rory McIlroy is 25 going on 35, thanks to the final round of the Open Championship and Sergio Garcia, the player who said he could never win a major -- and almost did Sunday.

Under overcast evening skies, McIlroy collected the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. There was as much relief on his face as there was joy. This major and this day can do that to you.

"I'm immensely proud of myself," said McIlroy.

He should be. McIlroy had begun the afternoon with a 6-shot lead. He was up 7 after the first hole. The on-site engraver began practicing his capital R's, M's and I's.

Royal Liverpool might have been semi-defenseless (rain-softened conditions, annoying winds only on the back nine), but the pressures of an Open Championship never call in sick. McIlroy felt it. He's listed at 160 pounds, but he was carrying a lot more weight during those final 18 holes.

For starters, he was lugging the weight of his legacy. Even his father had placed a bet on him 10 years ago to win an Open Championship before his 26th birthday. McIlroy checked that box, and his old man and friends will cash a check for about $350,000.

He was also lugging the weight of not becoming the next Greg Norman, who blew a 6-shot lead at the 1996 Masters. And remember, it was McIlroy who blew the 54-hole lead at the 2011 Masters.

There were no collapses Sunday. Wobbles, yes. But nothing fatal.

"I didn't need to do that much today, thankfully," said McIlroy of his play-it-safe, 1-under-par 71.

McIlroy's victory meant taking one step closer to history. He took the step, a giant one, and now owns three legs of the four-legged career Grand Slam: a U.S. Open, a PGA Championship and the major he dreamed of winning as a kid in Holywood, County Down, in Northern Ireland.

Back then, with the blind innocence of a 10-year old, he would walk into the Holywood Golf Club pro shop and fill out a scorecard. Where it read Competition, McIlroy would carefully print Open Championship. Then he would record his make-believe score and make it something preposterous. He would finish by signing his name, just as he signed his name Sunday night in the scorer's cabin located only a flop wedge away from Hoylake's clubhouse.

And the number was still preposterous: 17-under par, just 2 shots shy of Tiger Woods' all-time Open Championship record of 19-under.

"To sit here, 25 years of age ... I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly," McIlroy said.

It wasn't an easy victory. It wasn't the romp at Congressional in 2011 to win the U.S. Open. Or the 2012 PGA Championship, when he distanced himself from the field in the final nine. This Open Championship did what it was supposed to do, which is exact a toll. McIlroy might have gone wire-to-wire, but on Sunday his feet slipped just a little while making the trip.

McIlroy was pushed and pressured by Garcia, who famously announced two years ago that he wasn't good enough to win a major, that "I don't have the thing I need to have."

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