Commentary

Rory McIlroy claims crucial first major

Updated: July 21, 2011, 3:25 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

BETHESDA, Md. -- Being destined for greatness can be a heavy burden. Ask any player lugging around that best-player-without-a-major baggage how that weight tends to drag him down as time marches on.

That is why Rory McIlroy's U.S. Open victory Sunday -- whatever the margin -- was so big, so important, and partially a relief.

No longer will he have to answer questions about the Masters meltdown. No longer will his near-misses in majors be viewed as a negative.

In fact, now being close so often is viewed as a positive for a player who, at the moment ranked fourth in the world, by all accounts has so much upside.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Harry How/Getty ImagesAfter his victory at the 111th U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy has three professional wins. All came against strong, world-class fields.

McIlroy, has contended in four straight and has been a Sunday leader in the past three. Now he has his first major championship, at 22 the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923.

"He's a player with tremendous potential, and winning fulfills that potential and makes it easier to keep going," said three-time major winner Padraig Harrington of Ireland. "I think Rory has set himself apart now in potential. Other guys have been in contention and failed to win majors. Rory has been lapping the field. It was important for him to get a major, get across the line.

"It will make it easier going forward, yes."

You can't win multiple major championships without getting the first one, but even coming close on multiple occasions does not guarantee that such an achievement is imminent.

Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie serve as excellent examples. Who could have imagined 12 years ago at Medinah -- when a 19-year-old Garcia finished one stroke behind Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship -- that Garcia would still be without a major title in 2011?

Garcia, who had to qualify for this Open, managed to tie for seventh, assuring a return trip to the Olympic Club next year. It was his 16th top-10 in a major championship, and he has nine top-5s.

But no victories -- and he's not sounding confident, at age 31, about when a major will come.

"Maybe I'll get lucky one day," he said. "I know at the moment it's probably tough for me to get one because things are still not right."

You can bet that Garcia would be talking differently if he had converted at Medinah. Or over Harrington in a playoff at Carnoustie. Or after just missing against Harrington again at Oakland Hills.

Then there is Monty, who twice lost majors in playoffs and eight times led Europe's money list. He has more runner-up finishes in a major (five) than any player without a major win.

Phil Mickelson had to endure the questions for years, but finally broke through at age 34 and has added three more. Ben Hogan was a late bloomer, too, not winning the first of his nine majors until age 34.

But the longer the clock ticks …

And that is why what Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods did early in their careers was so important to them. Both won major championships in their first year as a professional. Nicklaus, at 22, captured the 1962 U.S. Open. Woods, at 21, won the 1997 Masters -- in his first major as a pro.

How much easier did that make it for them to win multiple majors? Having the first, in a way, took the pressure off.

"It's not easy to gain that experience," Woods, who has 14 majors, said a few years ago when discussing the topic. "But once you're able to get one, then it becomes easier to get the others. … It's a matter of getting that experience and building on it from there."

Woods missed the U.S. Open due to injury. "Congrats to Rory," he said via his agent. "What a performance from start to finish. Enjoy the win. Well done."

Nicklaus seemingly never looked back after defeating Arnold Palmer at Oakmont in a U.S. Open playoff. That victory was his first professional win and he added six more majors in the next five years on the way to 18 overall.

"To win the U.S. Open, and have that happen to him at this age, it takes a lot of pressure off him," Nicklaus said Sunday. "But also puts a lot of pressure on him.

"He will be and already is a celebrity, but he is a golfer first. Right now he is a very good golfer, but if he wants to be a great golfer, he needs to learn how to deal with it and learn how to handle all the things on the side. He needs to make certain golf is the first thing, as well as his motivation and desire to be great," he said.

"Tiger had records on the wall as his motivation. My motivation was that I wanted to be the best I could be in the sport, and once I got close to Bob Jones' record, that became a motivation. I think Rory has got his head screwed on pretty well and I think he'll keep it there."

While Martin Kaymer might not have been pegged to win multiple majors, the German admits that his victory last summer in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits has changed his demeanor and outlook.

"For me, it was an unbelievable boost to know you can win any tournament," said Kaymer, 26. "I approach the majors different, too, to bring myself in contention on Sunday.

"All the other players know I've won already. There's somebody out there who has never won. It gave me a lot of confidence, and the respect from other players increases as well. But it's more the confidence you gain from one of the biggest titles that you can get."

Funny how perceptions change. Coming into the U.S Open, heck even heading into Sunday, the talk was about McIlroy overcoming his disastrous final day at Augusta National, where a four-stroke lead turned into a 10-shot deficit after a final-round 80.

His reputation was as a player who had trouble closing, as had also been the case in some regular tour events.

"To come back straight away after the Masters and win the U.S. Open and as I say to get my first major out of the way early … no matter what you can always call yourself a major champion," McIlroy said. "Hopefully in the not too distance future I can call myself a multiple major championship."

No doubt, McIlroy will now be viewed in a more positive light. What if he had gotten it done that Sunday at Augusta? What if he had hit his drive in the fairway at the 10th hole -- when he was still tied for the lead -- and gone on to victory? Would we be headed to Royal St. George's in a few weeks for the Open Championship talking about the Grand Slam?

"Nothing this kid does ever surprises me," said 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who like McIlroy is from Northern Ireland. "He's the best player I've ever seen. I didn't have a chance to play with Tiger when he was in his real pump, and this guy is the best I've ever seen, simple as that. He's great for golf. He's a breath of fresh air for the game and perhaps we're ready for golf's next superstar."

The same has been said about many players over the years. But to get started on their journey to greatness, they had to make that big leap and win one of golf's most prestigious events.

McIlroy did it in a big way, setting six U.S. Open scoring records, including the lowest total score of 268, to win by eight strokes.

"From a very early age, he was destined to go on and win majors," Harrington said. "I can tell you that there are a thousand kids like that at the moment somewhere in the world who will end up with miserable lives and have their dream not come true.

"Rory's life was set up for this. And he has delivered. Which is impressive.''

And, at least as far as winning one major championship is concerned, the pressure is off.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com