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HOYLAKE, England – The celebration began long before Rory McIlroy had a chance to drink from the claret jug.

McIlroy was upstairs in the clubhouse at Royal Liverpool for the traditional toast with the R&A, unable to ignore the chants below from club members waiting for a glimpse of the British Open champion Sunday.

“Rory! Rory! Rory!”

It was a raucous scene for a club that starts with “Royal,” but such is the personality of Liverpool. Members booed anyone who came down the stairs who did not have curly brown hair, freckles and a claret jug.

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And their cheers shook the brick clubhouse when Boy Wonder finally descended with the oldest trophy in golf.

The scene was much different a year earlier.

McIlroy stood on a podium in a makeshift tent outside Muirfield, speaking to reporters with a vacant look in those brown eyes. He had opened with a 79, his worst start ever in a major in what was shaping up as a year to forget. He had no idea what was wrong with him or his game.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there and I’m unconscious,” he said that day. “I just need to try to think more. I’m trying to focus and trying to concentrate but, yeah, I can’t really fathom it at the minute.

“I’m definitely under-thinking on the golf course. Maybe overthinking off it.”

He looked lost.

These days, the 25-year-old looks like the best player in golf. His worst of times might lead to the best.

McIlroy’s golf was simply explosive Friday afternoon, with two bursts of birdies and plenty of chances in between, on his way to a 66. The defining moment of this championship was Saturday, when McIlroy went from a share of the lead to six shots clear in slightly more than an hour. He made eagles on two of the last three holes with two mammoth drives, two pretty swings and two perfect putts.

Nothing came easily to McIlroy over the last 18 months, though.

He was criticized for swapping out equipment when he signed a megadeal with Nike. He showed his age when he quit in the middle of the Honda Classic and initially blamed it on a sore wisdom tooth. He changed agents for the second time, and lawsuits followed that are still to be decided in court. He got engaged to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki to start the new year, then broke it off with a phone call in May.

And there he was Sunday, introduced as the “champion golfer of the year,” his name etched in silver on the claret jug after his third major title.

Asked for a low point during his struggles, McIlroy didn’t hesitate.

“This time last year,” he said.

Through it all, the player from Northern Ireland didn’t doubt he could return. After all, he had won the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship by eight shots each. There was never a question of his skill.

“It was just trying to find a way to make it come out again,” McIlroy said. “But yeah, definitely, missing the cut at Muirfield last year was a very low point.

“I never missed a cut at The Open before. I said to myself, ‘I’ll try to never make that happen again.’ It’s been huge what a difference a year makes. But it’s turned into a great year.”

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