HOYLAKE, England -- It is difficult to ask a 25-year-old in any profession, be he athlete or accountant, to accurately project a career path over the next two decades. There is so much to learn, so many decisions to make, so many directions to travel.
And yet that is what Rory McIlroy left us Sunday after his wire-to-wire win here. The particulars of his British Open victory are that he shot a final-round 71 at Royal Liverpool, that he finished at 17-under 271, that he beat Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler by two strokes and took his third major championship. The Grand Slam? Only the Masters awaits.
"I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly," McIlroy said.
Yet he is. So the questions now fall off the tongue. What next? How many? A Rory Era? They are worth asking because golf's one-name stars -- Tiger and Phil -- are 38 and 44, respectively, with more good golf in their past than their futures. McIlroy has, say, 15 more years in his rock-solid prime.
"Golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and try," McIlroy said. —... I want to be that person. I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly, wins tournaments. I'd love to be in that position."
So consider the position in which he stands right now. When Jack Nicklaus won the third leg of the career Grand Slam -- the PGA Championship in 1963 -- he was all of 23. When Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open for his third leg, he was 24, and he became the youngest winner of all four majors (in the Masters era) later that summer, when he claimed his first British Open. Nicklaus didn't complete his slam until he was 26. McIlroy's first chance will come in April at Augusta National, when he will still be 25.
"I don't see any reason why he's not going to win there," said Fowler, also 25, who has played with McIlroy at the Masters. "Definitely fits his game. ... It's just a matter of time."
And let's be clear about the exclusiveness of the group that has won all four. It does not include Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson, both short the PGA. It does not include Sam Snead, who never won the U.S. Open. Lee Trevino, Walter Hagen, Phil Mickelson -- all one leg short.
So the list is five long: Nicklaus, Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen.
"I'm looking forward to next April and driving down Magnolia Lane," McIlroy said, "and trying to complete the career Grand Slam."
He has but one top-10 finish in six trips to the Masters, but he did lead after each of the first three rounds in 2011. Should he win there, then what?
"We used to say there will never be another Nicklaus," Mickelson said. "And then along came Tiger. You never want to discount the possibility of someone coming along and dominating."
To be clear, McIlroy has not yet dominated. His first major, the U.S. Open at Congressional in 2011, portended great things, but he didn't post another top-10 finish at a major until he won the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah. His 2013 was nearly a complete wash-out.
He got engaged to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki over New Year's, then broke off the engagement two months ago. That very week, he won the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour. His frame of mind seemed to change.
"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."
Still, he had to deal with whatever presented itself Sunday, when he woke with a six-shot lead.
He wavered slightly Sunday, with a "bad bogey" at the par-5 fifth, then another at the sixth. When Garcia, playing a group ahead of McIlroy and Fowler, rolled in an eagle putt at 10, he was within two shots. But McIlroy's advantage was always there. The tournament never felt in doubt.
"When you know that you can't make mistakes," Garcia said, "it's hard."
When McIlroy birdied the par-5 16th, it was basically over, and the last two holes became a coronation. When he tapped in for par at 18, he threw the ball into the stands, hugged caddie J.P. Fitzgerald, then Fowler. He then waved his mother, Rosie, onto the green and embraced her as she sobbed.
What next? Fill up the claret jug with red wine and goodness knows what else to celebrate. McIlroy is 25, the golfing world at his feet, his future apparently limitless.
(Fourth round score, total score and relation to par)
Rory McIlroy 71--271 -17
Rickie Fowler 67--273 -15
Sergio Garcia 66--273 -15
Jim Furyk 65--275 -13
Adam Scott 66--276 -12
Dustin Johnson 72--279 -9
Phil Mickelson 68--283 -5
Justin Rose 72--283 -5
Jordan Spieth 73--286 -2
Tom Watson 68--289 +1
Tiger Woods 75--294 +6