CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You know how American Pharoah lapped the field on Saturday at the Preakness by seven lengths? Yeah, this was better than that.
While Rory McIlroy wasn’t vying for the second leg of the Triple Crown – or even the fourth leg of the career Grand Slam, that will have to wait until next April – his seven-stroke masterpiece was still an ominous work of art.
With apologies to American Pharoah, the 3-year-old only had to navigate a sloppy Pimlico track for his title; whereas McIlroy had to weather four trips through Quail Hollow Club’s demanding “Green Mile,” which the world No. 1 played in 1 over for the week.
But that doesn’t scratch the surface of McIlroy’s performance at Quail Hollow.
His Saturday 61 was a course record, breaking the old mark he set when he won here in 2010, and he etched 54- and 72-hole scoring records, shattering the latter by six strokes.
It was, by any measure, a signature performance somewhere just south of those eight-stroke romps at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship.
Not that the Northern Irishman was exactly caught up in the hyperbole following a closing-round 69 that was, by McIlroy’s own assessment, good enough.
“Sort of boring, really,” he said of his 11th PGA Tour victory. “In terms of there wasn’t as much excitement on the back nine. I finished with six 3s the last time I won here. Would have been nice to finish with six 3s again.”
It’s always more with this kid.
But what this victory lacked in fireworks it made up for in foreshadowing, with McIlroy comparing his current run, which includes May victories at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play and now the Wells Fargo Championship, to his late-summer tear in 2014 when he won bookend majors (Open Championship and PGA Championship) around a World Golf Championships high card (Bridgestone Invitational).
For others, it was more akin to his PGA walk-off in 2012 at Kiawah Island where he overpowered the course and all takers.
“He just has that killer instinct. He wants it so badly,” said David Feherty, the CBS Sports on-course reporter who walked with McIlroy in ’12 at the PGA and on Sunday at Quail Hollow. “There weren’t two of those on Noah’s Ark, I can tell you that much.”
There was a time when some openly asked if McIlroy was mean enough to win events with such cutthroat efficiency, a time when his periodic competitive lapses (see PGA Tour season, 2013) were grounds to question any comparisons to Tiger Woods.
But with each passing milestone those excuses begin looking thinner than Quail Hollow’s parched fairways.
In the last three weeks, McIlroy has played 265 competitive holes on Tour with progressively better results.
Although he said on Sunday it’s his complete game that makes performances like this week possible, what separates him from the pack on these occasions is an utter fearlessness off the tee. For the week, he had 42 drives of 300 yards or more and yet still batted well over .500 (31 of 56) in fairways hit.
There were cracks on Sunday, most notably a three-putt bogey from 56 feet at the second hole which was his first three-putt in 167 holes on Tour, and as he stepped to the 16th tee to begin the “Green Mile” he took a mental note that he was just four strokes clear of Patrick Rodgers at the time.
But a 364-yard drive and tap-in birdie at No. 16 quickly robbed the landscape of whatever drama was remaining.
Beginning the day, McIlroy’s plan was simple – birdie the four par 5s and two “reachable” par 4s. Six birdies, he reasoned, would be hard to beat considering the field had already spotted him a four-stroke advantage heading into the final turn.
But then simple is what an older, wiser McIlroy seems to do best. Like last year at Hoylake, when his trigger words for the week were “process” and “spot.”
This week it was an 11th-hour meeting with putting coach Dave Stockton Sr., who spent all of three minutes working with McIlroy on Wednesday. This time the message was stay down and with the putt through impact.
“Rory likes to keep things simple, like last year at the Open Championship, and that’s what we did,” said Stockton Sr., who reconnected with McIlroy after a 13-month hiatus.
Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is how much the 26-year-old relishes his status atop the pack.
Following his WGC-Match Play victory he acknowledged that he checks the Official World Golf Ranking to see his lead every Monday. High-profile victories in recent weeks by Jordan Spieth (Masters) and Rickie Fowler (The Players) have only intensified McIlroy’s desire to dominate.
“It does push me. I think you see guys that you knew well, guys that are your peers and they’re winning golf tournaments, big golf tournaments, that you want to win,” McIlroy said. “I felt like as the best player in the world I want to go at it every week and just show that.”
Whether by seven lengths or seven strokes, McIlroy’s play this week was more than just a single victory, it’s a sign of what’s becoming the norm for golf’s fiercest racehorse.