HOYLAKE, England — It was not quite the relaxed Sunday stroll around Royal Liverpool it might have been for Rory McIlroy.
His lead, as imposing as seven strokes in the early stages of the British Open's fourth round, was down to two with five holes to play. It was still two when he knocked his approach shot at No. 18 into an awkward place in a greenside bunker.
McIlroy, who has cracked under final-round pressure in majors past, bent but did not break. He ended up parring the hole from inches away to close with 1-under 71 and complete a wire-to-wire victory for his third major title.
And with his two-shot victory over Sergio Garcia (66) and Rickie Fowler (67) at 17-under 271, the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland joined elite company beyond the names on the Open's silver claret jug. Jack Nicklaus (23) and Tiger Woods (24) are the only other players since the Masters began in 1934 to win three majors before 26.
McIlroy, whose other major wins came at the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship, now is a Masters win shy of a career Grand Slam.
"I've really found my passion again for golf," McIlroy said. "Not that it ever dwindled, but it's what I think about when I get up in the morning. It's what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer that I can be. And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability."
This could have been a romp except for a shaky stretch early for McIlroy — bogeys at 5 and 6 after an opening birdie — and solid efforts from Garcia and Fowler.
Garcia pulled within two shots with four holes to play until he put his tee shot in a pot bunker just right of the 15th green. His first shot failed to get over the 4-foot sodden wall and rolled back into the sand. He made bogey, and two birdies over the final three holes were not enough. Garcia, 34, was runnerup in a major for the fourth time.
"I think that we gave it a good effort," he said. "And there was someone a little bit better."
Fowler, playing in the final group for the second straight major, didn't do anything wrong. He played without a bogey, but he didn't do enough right to make up the six-shot deficit with which he began the day.
"It's hard to be disappointed about it because it was such a great week," Fowler, 25, said.
McIlroy's life has been a series of plot twists and U-turns since he ended the 2012 season by winning his second major and capturing the money titles on the PGA and European tours.
Since then, McIlroy signed a megadeal with Nike and switched out all his equipment. He changed management for the second time, leading to lawsuits that are still to be decided in court. And after getting engaged to Caroline Wozniacki on New Year's Eve, he abruptly broke off the engagement in May.
On the course, he missed the cut at the British Open last year. He won his first tournament of 2013 at the Australian Open in December, and this year, six times in his eight tournaments before the British Open, he had a nine-hole score of 40 or higher on Friday that took him out of the mix.
During the Open, he talked about two secret words he was using to try to focus his play. He said he wouldn't reveal them unless he won.
"It was 'process' and 'spot,' " he said after the last round.
"With my long shots, I just wanted to stick to my process and stick to making good decisions, making good swings … so I wasn't thinking about the end result, basically."
"Spot" was about his putting.
"I was just picking a spot on the green and trying to roll it over my spot," he said. "I wasn't thinking about holing it. I wasn't thinking about what it would mean or how many further clear it would get me. … If that went in, then great. If it didn't, then I'd try it the next hole."
With the claret jug in his possession, he did let himself look at the bigger picture, one that extended to April 2015. "Looking forward to driving up Magnolia Lane next year," he said, smiling.