By Matthew Rudy
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rory McIlroy won his first three majors in what amounted to victory laps -- smashing them by a combined 18 shots.
Like a boxer who built a perfect record on carefully chosen opponents, what would happen, we wondered, when he got into a real fight?
Well, it happened, and he punched harder than anybody else.
McIroy admitted he came out flat Sunday, and at the turn he found himself one over for the day and three strokes behind Rickie Fowler. He stood in the middle of the 10th fairway and watched Fowler and Phil Mickelson roll in important putts, and waited for the crowd's explosion to die. Then he hit the best shot of the tournament -- a low, slicing 3-wood from 284 yards away that settled seven feet from the hole.
McIlroy made the eagle putt to pull within one and joined Fowler and Mickelson in the lead on 13. He won the tournament on the 17th by sticking his 150-yard approach from a fairway bunker to 10 feet and converting the birdie.
"To win in this fashion and this style, it means a lot," McIlroy said. "It means I know I can do it. I know that I can come from behind. I know I can mix it up with the best players in the world and come out on top. Phil Mickelson, the second best player in this generation, to be able to beat him on the back nine on Sunday -- it's great to have that in the memory bank."
McIlroy won his fourth major in his 25th major championship start -- four off the pace set by Tiger Woods when he won his fourth at the 2000 British Open.
McIlroy goes to Augusta next spring gunning for the career Grand Slam with some lofty praise from Jack Nicklaus ringing in his ears. The man who won 18 majors thinks McIlroy could win 15 or 20 of his own if he stays focused. For McIlroy, it means the Masters tunnel vision starts January 2015, when he begins his normal pre-major preparation.
"I have to take it one small step at a time," McIlroy said. "I think the next two realistic goals are the career Grand Slam and trying to become the most successful European player in the modern era. Nick Faldo has six. Seve has five. Hopefully, when I achieve those, I can start to think about other things."