HOYLAKE, England — It was not quite the relaxed Sunday stroll around Royal Liverpool that it might have been for Rory McIlroy.
His lead, as imposing as seven strokes in the early stages of the fourth round, was down to two strokes with five holes to play in this British Open. It was still at two when he knocked his final approach shot of the tournament into an awkward place in a greenside bunker at the 18th hole.
McIlroy, who has cracked under final-round pressure in majors past, bent but did not break.
Hoylake, which staged the Open in 2006 but was long deprived before that, is a special place for golfers from Northern Ireland. Fred Daly won at Royal Liverpool in 1947, becoming the first golfer from Northern Ireland to win a major championship. Now it should be an even more iconic spot for those who reside just across the Irish Sea.
McIlroy, at 25, earned his first British Open title by leading from start to finish and breaking par in every round, finishing with a 17-under-par total of 271. He won by piling up birdies and eagles on the course’s par-5s, by playing boldly when it was possible and judiciously when it was required, and by holding off a robust final-day challenge from Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler, who finished in a tie for second at 15 under.
Garcia, playing in the penultimate group of the day, shot a 66. Fowler, playing in the final pairing with McIlroy and often chatting and joking with him, shot a 67.
McIlroy could do no better than a 71, but that was enough for him to secure the claret jug by two shots and put the accent back on youth at a tournament that was won the last three years by well-established veterans in their 40s: Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, and Phil Mickelson.
“The Open is the one that we all want, the one we all strive for,” McIlroy told the crowd, receiving cheers until he mentioned that he was a Manchester United fan.
The victory made McIlroy the third-youngest man in history to win three of the four major titles, behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who also happen to have won more major titles than any other men.
Nicklaus has 18. Woods, who won at Royal Liverpool in 2006, still has 14, struggling mightily here in his return to major competition after having spinal surgery. He was 18 under at Hoylake in 2006. He was 6 over this year.
McIlroy may never match the depth and breadth of Nicklaus’s and Woods’s achievements; this is an era in which week-in, week-out domination is more elusive. But McIlroy is clearly a talent for the ages, one who can take apart a golf course with a remarkable blend of power and touch.
On Sunday he was a flickering flame. He started the day with a six-shot lead over Fowler, having finished with eagles on Nos. 16 and 18 in the third round Saturday.
McIlroy won his first major title, at the 2011 US Open, by eight strokes and his second, at the 2012 PGA Championship, by the same margin. This proved a much more nerve-racking experience.
After a birdie on the opening hole amid roars of support from the big gallery, McIlroy led by seven strokes. But Garcia gradually began to narrow the gap.
Through six holes, he had cut McIlroy’s lead to three shots. Through 13 holes, he had cut it to two, making an eagle on No. 10 and then getting a lucky bounce on No. 12 when his approach shot drifted right, bounced off the grandstand and ended up sitting just off the edge of the green. After making his par, Garcia kissed the ball and tossed it to the fans.
But after hitting into a greenside bunker on the par-3 15th, Garcia failed to get out of the sand on his first attempt and ended up with a bogey. That gave McIlroy breathing room heading into the closing stretch of holes, which he had dominated this tournament.
It was yet another disappointment in a major for Garcia, a Spaniard who is a popular figure in Europe but who, at 34, is still searching for his first major championship.
McIlroy, nine years younger, now lacks only the Masters title. In 2011, he led that tournament by four shots through three rounds but failed to handle the moment, collapsing with a final-round 80.
He was a golfer caught in the headlights that day, but he since has showed beyond a reasonable doubt that he knows how to manage a lead when it matters most.
Multiple moments down the stretch proved it. At the difficult par-4 seventh, he hit into a bunker with his second shot, but despite being close to its imposing face, he managed to get up and down for par. At the 11th, he sank a 6-foot putt for par. He also faced down a distraction at the 16th: After hitting his tee shot, McIlroy turned and pointed with his club toward a heckler in the gallery, who eventually was escorted away from the hole by security guards.
McIlroy is clearly a better and more resilient player than he was, if not yet a consistently brilliant one.
“The way he plays is pretty aggressively,” Woods said Sunday. “When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It’s one or the other. If you look at his results, it’s kind of that way.”
It certainly has been a year of plot twists and U-turns. Last July at Muirfield, McIlroy failed to make the cut at the British Open and even putted a ball into a sand trap in his opening round.
“Just thoughtless — just so, like, brain dead, seriously,” McIlroy said then. “I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple months. I’m trying to get out of it. I just don’t quite know how.”
After more struggles, he won his first tournament of 2013 at the Australian Open in December. This year, he made a wrenching decision in May when he broke off his engagement to Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki (who also won a tournament Sunday, in Istanbul). It is unclear what impact that decision had on McIlroy privately, but it certainly has not hurt his golf game.
Shortly after he announced their breakup, he came from seven shots back on the final day of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to win. Now, he has won the claret jug with the fourth-lowest British Open score in relation to par since 1963. (Woods was 19 under when he won at St. Andrews in 2000 and 18 under when he won at Hoylake; Nick Faldo was 18 under at St. Andrews in 1990.)
McIlroy might well have finished atop that list if he had played the four par-5s on Sunday with the same ruthless opportunism he displayed in the first three rounds. Still, although he had a bogey on the fifth hole, he came up with a birdie on the 10th and the 16th.
On No. 18, after a fine and conservative tee shot with an iron instead of a driver, he put his second shot into that greenside bunker. That certainly made his triumphant march toward the final green more stressful, but he doffed his cap, acknowledged the warm reception and then quickly blasted out of trouble and onto the safety of the green one last time.