The McIlroy Legend Continues to Build at Valhalla
Rory McIlroy lifts the last major of the year the PGA Championship 2014: photo courtesy of www.omegawatches.com
We’ve seen this before, but from only a precious few.
Rory McIlroy’s PGA Championship victory at soggy Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, Kentucky extended his major championship total to four and his win streak from as many huge events — The Open Championship, WGC Bridgestone Championship and the PGA — to three.
Along with it, he’s had us reaching for the superlatives yet again and re-inked the history books that aren’t yet dry from the previous major instalment at Hoylake.
The Northern Irishman’s dominance over the summer months has put golf, and McIlroy himself, back on the front pages for all the right reasons. In the blink of an eye, issues with equipment, management, court cases and relationships have been consigned to fish and chip wrapping, yesterday’s news.
Lets tick off some of the records set, starting with the most historic. McIlroy joins Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players in the last 100 years to hold four major championships by age 25 or less.
He became the second youngest to win two PGA championship, behind Tiger Woods, and the 18th player to win two majors in the one season.
“I thought winning The Open championship a few weeks ago had sort of put me on a higher level in this game,” McIlroy said. “I never thought I’d get this far at 25 years of age.”
“I was happy being a two-time major champion coming into the year; all of a sudden I’m a four-time major champion.”
The scary thing for McIlroy’s peers is that the drama-charged final day at Valhalla forged a new weapon to add to his already considerable arsenal of talents: How to win without you’re ‘A game’.
It’s a trait that very few in the history of the game have been able to boast but is another attribute he now shares with Nicklaus and Woods, who could both find a way to win in the most trying of circumstances.
Its arguable McIlroy even had his ‘B’ game firing after starting the final round with a one stroke lead but slipping early to fall behind a hungry pack that included perennial crowd favourite Phil Mickelson, the season’s perennial major contender Rickie Fowler and the perenially overdue Henrik Stenson.
The world’s best front runner suddenly looked vulnerable on a sodden golf course that was haemorrhaging birdies to all and sundry including McIlroy’s playing partner, Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger, who had made the cut in just one of five major starts prior to this week.
At Hoylake a month earlier, McIlroy grabbed the championship by the scruff of the neck with late eagles over the final holes to distance himself from the field at the completion of the third round. Three strokes adrift at the turn at Valhalla, McIlroy seized the moment again with a single, majestic ‘result’ on the par-five 10th that also turned this championship on its head.
A three-wood from over 280 yards came out solidly but lower and further left that he was aiming, the ball bouncing along the left fringe of the fairway before feeding onto the green and to within 8-feet of the hole for eagle.
“That was the turning point for the day,” he said, “You need a little bit of luck in major championships to win and that was my lucky break.”
After that, you knew the putt was destined to be a mere formality, and so it was.
Unlike Hoylake however, McIlroy’s challengers looked to not only absorb but be inspired by the world number one’s surge back into contention. Ahead, Fowler, Mickelson and Stenson continued the surge of their own to tie for the lead at 15-under before McIlroy birdied the 13th to draw level.
As the finishing line loomed fast, although ‘gloomed’ fast might be more appropriate in the rapidly fading light following a two-hour rain delay earlier in the day, all of a sudden McIlroy’s contenders faltered with bogies and dropped back to 14-under, restoring McIlroy’s slim overnight lead once again.
A birdie following a peerless approach from a fairway bunker on 17 stretched the advantage to two with a hole to play but the back nine histrionics of the year’s final and most exciting major were not over yet.
With twilight falling rapidly into darkness, McIlroy and Wiesberger in the final group were sportingly permitted to hit off the 18th tee by Mickelson and Fowler while they waited in the fairway to make their final bids for victory.
“It was a classy move for those guys to do that,” McIlroy said. “They could have had us standing and wait on the 18th tee while it was getting dark. It was great sportsmanship and shows the great character of those two guys, and I’m glad they did it.”
McIlroy’s tee shot sailed dangerously close to the hazard on the right and may have found the water but for the soft conditions, but the drama didn’t stop there as Mickelson and Fowler were asked by official to wait again to allow the final group to play up to the green.
This later concession seemed at best, to bemuse Mickelson and Fowler who in ideal circumstances, could have forced McIlroy’s hand to play more aggressively had they managed to eagle the last to force a tie.
As it was, both players made gallant but unsuccessful bids for the tie and McIlroy was able to play safely with a greenside explosion and a careful two putts for a 16-under total, one ahead of Mickelson, with Fowler and Stenson two shots back.
“I’d never dreamed I’d have a summer like this,” McIlroy said after hoisting his second Wanamaker Trophy, “This was different than my previous major wins, I showed a lot of guts to get this one done.”
Fowler’s magnificent season in the majors continued without being able to actually break through. He became the first player in a year to finish in the top-five of every major without lifting a trophy and his disappointment at the result is further testament to his growing stature in the game.
“This is the first one that hurts,” Fowler said. “Obviously, I did some great playing this year. My performance in the majors is something I can look back on and be proud of.”
Mickelson’s wretched 2014 almost turned around in one fell swoop but there was a silver lining in running so close to McIlroy via automatically qualifying for his 10th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in September.
“It was a hard fought day.” Mickelson said, “I’m disappointed in the outcome. I thought that had I been able to finish those last five or six holes strong, it could have totally flipped the way I look at this year.”
There’s so much in McIlroy’s immediate future, with the FedEx Cup about to start and heading up Europe’s defence of the Ryder Cup in Scotland, but the eight months he will need to wait till Augusta will now be an even more agonising wait.
Winning the Claret Jug at Hoylake gave him the third leg of the career Grand Slam with only The Masters left to conquer. Following the PGA, Augusta now represents not only a career Slam opportunity for McIlroy but a tilt at a third successive major.
A win at The Masters would be an outrageous achievement but dare we dream of him going on to win four majors straight, with a win at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay? Only Tiger Woods has been in this rarified air in the modern era but McIlroy is fast proving he’s cut from the same cloth, one of the precious few.
“He’s better than everyone else right now,” Mickelson said.
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