CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Note to PGA of America chief championships officer Kerry Haigh: If you don’t want the 2017 PGA Championship to be a carbon copy of the ’12 PGA at Kiawah Island, start digging now.
But then the way Rory McIlroy played on Saturday at Quail Hollow Club, which is pegged to host the ’17 PGA, there’s probably not enough real estate in North Carolina to keep the Northern Irishman from dismantling the tree-lined layout in two years.
Not with the world No. 1 averaging 309 yards off the tee and hitting more than half (24 of 42) of Quail Hollow’s fairways. Not with an iron game that ranks first this week in approach-shot distance. Not with a putter that is fifth in strokes gained-putting.
McIlroy blazed his way to a course-record 61 Saturday, clipping the previous mark set by ... well, McIlroy, at the 2010 Wells Fargo Championship. But on a hot and humid day his performance was more reminiscent of that 2012 masterpiece at Kiawah Island, where he won by eight strokes.
“On No. 16 he hits it over that whole bunker, with a little draw into the wind,” marveled Will MacKenzie, who was paired with McIlroy in Round 3. “It’s 320 [yards] and he just blew it by ... I mean, come on.”
It’s not often Tour types allow themselves to be in awe of a fellow frat brother, but such was the level of McIlroy’s brilliance.
As he brushed past reporters gathered to talk with McIlroy, Brendan Steele was congratulated for a solid round of his own (68). “Thanks,” he smiled. “Not bad for normal people.”
When McIlroy is executing like he did Saturday, he’s not normal and more times than not he’s not catchable.
McIlroy put on a familiar show in 2010, when he began the final round at the Wells Fargo Championship four strokes off the lead but played the final nine holes in 30, including the infamous “Green Mile” in 3 under par, for his lowest career round as a professional (62) and a four-stroke victory.
That was McIlroy’s first PGA Tour victory, a milestone that even at 26 years old he still revisits. Since then he’s added nine more Tour titles, four majors and countless pounds of muscle, and ascended to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
He’s also gotten better. Better at driving the golf ball, as evidenced by his display Saturday, better around the greens and, most importantly, better at controlling his emotions.
“Mentally I’m so much better,” said McIlroy, who moved to 18 under and four strokes clear of hometown favorite Webb Simpson with his record round. “My mindset or my demeanor doesn’t change no matter what situation I’m in in a tournament or on the golf course.
Unlike Tiger Woods, whose improvement over the years came via well-defined eureka moments, McIlroy’s progress has been much more subtle, almost subdued.
While his swing has remained largely unchanged since that 2010 victory at Quail Hollow, he’s become more consistent even during events when things aren’t exactly falling in the proper order, like two weeks ago at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play when his putting, by his own admission, was less than spectacular.
But when all the tools are in place he has another gear, an extra level of proficiency that he can apply to make the game look amazingly easy. Days like Round 3 at the Wells Fargo Championship when the next-best score was 65 and he beat the field average by more than 10 strokes.
While McIlroy’s Saturday will likely be the highlight from this year’s event at Quail Hollow, it may have been a Friday 70 when things weren’t going his way that paved the way to victory.
It’s a long view McIlroy has come by honestly.
“Five years of being out here, competing, winning majors, losing majors, patience is the thing that really is the difference between who I am now and who I was five years ago,” he said.
For MacKenzie, who joined the Tour in 2005 and has seen Woods at his best, when Rory is firing on all cylinders he’s Tiger-esque.
“Tiger was the man; Rory is up there,” MacKenzie said. “He’s like Tiger to me. Jordan [Spieth] is up there, so is Rickie [Fowler], but when this guy hits it you can tell the difference. He is so much more physically gifted.”
Although McIlroy was reluctant to look too far ahead even with a substantial lead and the 54-hole scoring record, he did allow a moment of competitive leeway when asked about the possibility of playing for another PGA title two years from now at Quail Hollow.
“It will be nice that a major is coming here in a couple year’s time,” he said with coy smile.
As for Haigh, he’s officially on the clock to find a way to Rory-proof Quail Hollow. Otherwise, he may make the club’s “Green Mile” look like a stroll in the park and the 2017 PGA a sequel to that historic ’12 championship.