Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland kisses the Claret Jug after winning the British Open Championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, northern England July 20, 2014. Photo by Cathal McNaughton, Reuters.
HOYLAKE - Rory McIlroy has three of the four majors safely in the bag and he is already thinking about adding the final piece of golfing's crown jewels at Augusta National next April.
The 25-year-old Irishman won the British Open for the first time at Hoylake on Sunday by two strokes from Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler.
It was less of a margin than the eight strokes he beat the field with to take the 2011 US Open crown and the 2012 US PGA Championship, but it was every bit as valuable to him.
He joined an elite group of players to win three out of the four majors, is the only the third - after Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus - to do so by the age of 25 and is the first European to win three.
A lot to take in at one time, but McIlroy is a keen student of golfing greatness and he is aware of where he now stands in that aspect.
"Yeah, I'm immensely proud of myself. To sit here 25 years of age and win my third major Championship and be three-quarters of the way to the career Grand Slam," he said minutes after raising the Claret Jug in triumph above his head.
"I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly.
"The Open Championship was the one you really wanted growing up, and the one you holed so many putts on the putting green to win, to beat Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, whatever."
Sunday's celebrations were in stark contrast to last year at Muirfield in Scotland when McIlroy was mired in the middle of a year-long slump that saw him miss the cut in the year's third major.
It was, he said, the lowest point he reached before starting to recover his form and passion for golf towards the end of the year in Australia.
"I had never missed a cut at the Open before. And I really missed playing the weekend," he said.
"I said to myself, I'll try to never make that happen again. It's been huge what a difference a year makes, I guess. But it's turned into a great year.
"The win at Wentworth (in May) was huge. And obviously getting my third major is a huge step in the right direction. There's many more tournaments and many more trophies that I want to win.
Top of those will be defending the Open crown next year at St Andrews, which McIlroy says is his favourite Open venue, and then the challenge of Augusta and the chance to become just the sixth player to win all five major titles.
He has come close before, notably in 2011 when he led by four strokes going into the final round only to collapse with an 80, and McIlroy feels that his chance will come again.
"I am looking forward to next April and trying to complete the career Grand Slam," he said.
"I'm getting more comfortable. The thing is I've always been comfortable from tee to green at Augusta.
"And it's just taken me a few years to figure out the greens and figure out where you need to miss it and some different little shots that you might need that week.
"I'll be going into Augusta next year pretty confident."
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