2014 British Open: The Biggest Surprises at Royal Liverpool

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2014

2014 British Open: The Biggest Surprises at Royal Liverpool

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    Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy re-established himself as a major-championship commodity with a workmanlike final-round effort at the 143rd British Open on Sunday, escaping major damage throughout on the way to a one-under par 71 at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club.

    His four-day score of 17-under 271 was two shots better than the second-place pairing of Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler and another two ahead of Jim Furyk, providing the 25-year-old the third major of his career and first since he’d captured the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in August 2012.

    "He gets it. He's realistic. He's not delusional like a lot of players," ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said on the Sunday broadcast. "Get used to seeing this out of Rory McIlroy for the next several years."

    And while the wire-to-wire nature of McIlroy’s performance—he held the outright lead at the end of the three previous rounds and was never fewer than two shots ahead on Sunday—was hardly dramatic, there were nonetheless some surprising moments as things evolved over 72 holes.

    We take a look at a half-dozen of them here.

    And, as always, feel free to make suggestions of your own in the comments section.

A Midsummer Weekend’s Dream

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    The British Open memories belonging to watchers of a certain age typically include biting winds, pelting rains and a general sense of gray-skied discomfort. But any youngsters watching this week were treated to something decidedly different.

    Though rain was indeed part of the landscape for the first few days—in fact, the third-round format was altered to accommodate a late-arriving storm—it never created the prolonged picture of misery that had been etched onto the faces of players in previous years.

    Ironically, that late-arriving storm actually softened things up prior to the start of Sunday’s round and made things easier on the final day, which was played amid sunshine and moderate winds that could easily have been listed from a stateside course.

    It'll be a hard meteorological act to follow next summer in Scotland, when the event returns to St. Andrews.

In the Battle of TWs, Tom Beats Tiger

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    Though he’d entered with 14 major wins—including the last time the British was played at Royal Liverpool—expectations for an only recently returned Tiger Woods were predictably tempered.

    Still, regardless of myriad injuries, if you’d told most folks that he’d finish the weekend five shots behind 64-year-old Tom Watson, it might have earned a few quizzical looks.

    Woods revved the hyperbolic engines with a three-under 69 through the first 18 holes, but he looked every bit the rusty 38-year-old the rest of the way while carding 77, 73 and 75 to wind up 69th in a post-cut field of 72 players.

    Meanwhile, Watson played through the fifth anniversary of his near miss in the 2009 Open at Turnberry and shot a final-round 68. His score tied him with reigning PGA champion Jason Dufner for the week, while he bettered comparative youngsters such as Woods, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker and Luke Donald.

Wherefore Art Thou, Adam Scott?

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    The Australian entered as both the world’s top-ranked player and the top choice of the oddsmaking folks at VegasInsider.com, but once things got started on Thursday, he was only briefly a factor.

    Adam Scott made the first-day turn at four under par, but he didn’t get that number any lower by the end of the day and was already two shots back of Rory McIlroy before posting an uninspiring 73 on Day 2 and essentially taking himself out of the running.

    A 69 in the third round only had him within 10 shots of the front-runner’s pace after 54 holes, and references made to him throughout the day Sunday were more related to his world ranking and major-winning pedigree—he was the 2013 Masters champion—than any serious threat he presented.

    When it was over, Scott was tied for fifth, five strokes off the winning pace.

    He'll still be the best in the world when the updated Official World Golf Ranking is tabulated and he's still likely to be a top betting choice in every event he enters, but it was nonetheless an illustration of the difference between a statistical top man (Scott) and a money player on a major stage (McIlroy).

Vive La Frenchman, Victor Dubuisson

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    Among the names ensconced on the leaderboard for most of the Open, perhaps the most unrecognizable one to non-hardcore fans was the 24-year-old with no history of major performance.

    In fact, Victor Dubuisson had never even shot a round in the 60s in three previous attempts at a major—once each at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open—before stringing together a 66 and a 68 in Rounds 2 and 3 to enter the final round in fifth place, well ahead of familiar names such as Adam Scott, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

    For a guy whose only career victory remains the 2013 Turkish Airlines Open, it was heady company to keep and a successful venture as a whole, even if it ended with a final-round 70 and a tie for ninth place with Graeme McDowell.

    We will see, however, if it was merely a leaderboard anomaly or a legitimate sign that yet another 20-something is ready to take his place alongside the Scotts, Rory McIlroys and Rickie Fowlers of the world.

Sudden End to the Long Gray Line

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    With three consecutive winners who’d already passed their 40th birthdays, the Open was becoming a haven for players who’d been surpassed at other venues by the 20- and 30-something crowds.

    But the Cocoon-like time machine came to a screeching halt this week.

    Only one player on the far side of 40—44-year-old Jim Furyk—managed to wind up in the top 10 at the end, and he was never closer than a hearty shout in the final round en route to an overall 13-under par 275 that was four shots behind winner Rory McIlroy.

    Last year’s champion, Mickelson, never made an impact while managing just one round in the 60s, finishing tied for 23rd. The previous two 40-plus champions—Ernie Els and Darren Clarke—missed the cut and finished tied for 26th, respectively.

    Incidentally, this year’s champion, McIlroy, was a month shy of his 15th birthday when Mickelson won his first major—the 2004 Masters.

Making Some Major History

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    Because he led by four shots after two rounds, six shots after three rounds and by as many as seven early in the fourth, much of the intrigue surrounding whether or not McIlroy would win the tournament was long gone by Sunday afternoon.

    But the closer he got to hoisting the Claret Jug, the more the history he was pursuing came into clear focus.

    The third major championship win—joining the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship—made the 25-year-old McIlroy just the 12th player to win three-quarters of the Grand Slam, and the third-youngest to accomplish it behind only Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24).

    He’s also the first European-born player to win three of the four majors since the Masters became part of the quartet with its inception in 1934.

    And for those anticipating a final-round collapse similar to the one he’d experienced after holding a four-stroke lead after 54 holes at the 2011 Masters, it wasn’t happening.

    That day, McIlroy ballooned to 80 and wound up in a tie for 15th place. But Sunday’s Open finale was more like his U.S. Open and PGA wins, which he led by eight and three after three rounds, respectively, en route to wins by eight and eight.

    "It's pretty hard to describe," he told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi after the final round. "All I know is that I won my third leg of the career Grand Slam at 25, and I'm feeling pretty good right now."