On the last day of the 1960 U.S. Open played at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, the following names appeared on the leaderboard: Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Hogan was 47 and that Open turned out to be his last serious run at a major championship. Palmer was 30, already a two-time Masters champion. He began the last round seven shots back, drove the first green and won his first and only Open title. Nicklaus was 20, still an amateur and had the lead on the back nine before two three-putts undid him. He was paired with Hogan, who said afterwards that if Nicklaus had had any idea what he was doing he would have won easily.
Clearly, Hogan knew from whence he spoke.
Only time will tell us if the remarkable theater we witnessed Sunday at the PGA Championship will be an equal part of golf history.
At the very least, the leading stars were a fascinating cast of characters.
On stage at Valhalla was Phil Mickelson, who is already in the Hall of Fame with five major titles and might – at age 44 – be nearing his last hurrah. He was paired on the final day with Rickie Fowler, who at 25 has become an important golfer and not just a successful marketing campaign.
Two groups ahead of Mickelson and Fowler was Henrik Stenson, representing golf’s middle-age at 38. Stenson won last year’s FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai. He has won a Players Championship and had six top-five finishes in majors when he got to Valhalla.
Last, and certainly not least, was The Next One.
Rory McIlroy has carried that label since his eight-shot victory at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open and, in the minds of many, has had it on him since he was a teenage prodigy in Northern Ireland.
At 25 – even before this past weekend – McIlroy has emerged as Tiger Woods’ successor on golf’s throne. That does not mean he’s the next Tiger – no one deserves that overwhelming burden – but he is his sport’s next superstar.
He already had three majors in his pocket when he walked to the first tee late Sunday after a near-two-hour rain delay, but found himself in an unusual spot. He had a one-shot lead on a packed leaderboard on Sunday at a major. In his three prior major victories, he controlled the final 18 holes – never falling out of the lead. In his one epic meltdown at the 2011 Masters, he saw a four-shot lead disappear, shooting an 80 that landed him in a tie for 15th place.
“That’s the only time I think I’ve ever played defense with a lead,” he said last week. “I think I learned a lesson from that. You have to keep attacking.”
Knowing that and doing it are two different things. McIlroy was tentative for six holes on Sunday while Mickelson, Stenson and Fowler attacked. By the time he reached the 10th tee, McIlroy was behind all three.
It all changed on the par-5 10th, thanks to McIlroy’s power and a little bit of luck. After a huge drive, he took out his 3-wood. Having just watched Fowler make birdie in front of him, he was three shots behind the leader. McIlroy didn’t catch the 3-wood flush but, from 281 yards, it bounced just right and rolled to within 7 feet. From there he rolled in the eagle putt.
McIlroy never missed another green and the drive he blasted at No. 16 will be replayed forever. One wonders what ran through Mickelson’s mind as he stood on the 16th green, tied for the lead, and saw McIlroy standing in the fairway 334 yards from the tee waiting to hit his second shot.
“It reminded me a little bit of Nicklaus on the 16th green at Augusta in 1975, only in reverse,” Golf Channel’s Frank Nobilo said. “Nicklaus made that putt and turned around and looked right at (Tom) Weiskopf standing on the tee. This time Phil looked down the fairway before he had that 10-foot par putt and there was Rory staring right at him.”
Mickelson’s putt came up inches short – his first bogey in 22 holes and his only one on the day. McIlroy had the lead and never gave it back.
Unfortunately, the bizarre ending in the dark may take away from the drama produced by all four players on the last day. Mickelson and Stenson both shot 66; McIlroy and Fowler 68. But it was McIlroy who went low on the back nine when the pressure was greatest, producing a 32. None of the other three shot lower than 35.
Palmer driving the first hole to start the last round at Cherry Hills in 1960 will never be forgotten. McIlroy’s drive on No. 16 at Valhalla – paired with the in-your-face birdie at No. 17 – may be remembered in much the same way.
It is possible that Valhalla will go down as the week that the sport became McIlroy’s. Woods hobbled off the stage on Friday evening, unable to even sniff the cut. If he can get healthy and become a relevant player again in the future he will be challenging McIlroy, not the other way around.
The same is true of Mickelson, who threw everything he had at McIlroy on Sunday and came up short. One could almost hear Mickelson roaring into the darkness after the round when he talked repeatedly about being excited about the next four or five years. Only when someone asked him how good McIlroy was did his true feelings come out – more in tone – than in words.
“He’s better than everyone else right now,” Mickelson said with a sigh. “He’s good. Really good.”
The question now is, how good will McIlroy’s long-term challengers be? Woods and Mickelson may block his way on a major Sunday or two before they’re done, but those who are likely to be around for a while are the likes of Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. Whether any of them are as good as Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval or Vijay Singh – Woods’ main challengers in his heyday – remains to be seen. That’s not to mention Gary Player, Tom Watson, Palmer and Lee Trevino, each of whom won at least six majors, during Nicklaus’s storied career.
That’s all for the future. For now, only one thing is certain: An invisible torch was passed on Sunday in Kentucky. The man holding it seems to be very comfortable with it in his hands.