LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One by one they trudged across the dimly lit back patio at Valhalla, their faces flush from the humidity, the exhaustion and, yes, the frustration.
The challenge in chasing down Rory McIlroy is that it requires near-flawless golf, and not even some of the biggest names in the game could keep pace Sunday at the 96th PGA Championship.
Phil Mickelson, a five-time major winner, cracked.
So did Rickie Fowler, who finished in the top 5 in all four majors this season.
Ditto for Henrik Stenson, the No. 3-ranked player in the world.
Rory? Oh, he cracked all right – a 281-yard 3-wood into the 10th, leading to a game-changing eagle. On 16, one of the last trouble holes, he uncorked a 331-yard drive (the longest of the day by 17 yards) to turn out the lights.
For years, the careers of even the most extravagantly talented were stunted by Tiger Woods’ dominance. Now, there is a new master in McIlroy, a player who has proven adept at both blowing out and outlasting the field.
Forget the muted annoyance of the four-ball finish. For these nearly-men, they bemoaned another well-played major that still wasn’t enough.
Start with Mickelson, who only eight days earlier was so despondent about his game that he said a good round would have to come “out of nowhere.” What a remarkable turn of events, then, because in the past week he shot a Sunday 62 at Firestone; posted consecutive 67s to put himself in the penultimate group at the PGA; and then held a share of the lead at Valhalla with three holes to play.
As thrilling as it was to see Lefty charge into the lead, it was equally deflating the way he kicked it away. Twenty yards short of the 16th green, he hit his pitch shot too hard and then left the 10-foot par putt short.
“Costly,” he said.
To win, Mickelson figured he needed a back-nine 32 – in total, a final-round 63 – and indeed, that score would have won by two. He just wasn’t sharp enough to capture major No. 6.
In fact, Mickelson said repeatedly that he needed to “regroup” after this year – to focus on his driving and short irons, areas that once were strengths but now have held him back. Like what happened on No. 4, when he had 74 yards to the flag for his approach. In the past, he would have thought about holing that shot. On Sunday, the best he could do was 16 feet.
“Pathetic,” he said. “Things like that have been happening this year, and I can’t let that happen anymore.”
With only a four- or five-year window remaining, he realizes he can’t be average in those areas and remain competitive, especially in this new world order.
“These next three or four months will be critical for me to make sure that I address the issues and be ready to go for 2015,” he said.
Meanwhile, the future has never looked brighter for Fowler, whose game finally matches the garish outfits.
Four majors produced four chances. The 25-year-old admittedly wasn’t ready to win when he entered the final round of the Masters only two shots back, and a Sunday 73 left him well behind. He was in the final group at both summer Opens, but to win he needed both an all-world performance and a historic collapse.
“I really felt like I could win this one,” Fowler said, which is why there was more pain than pride when he came off the course, his 14-under 270 two shots shy.
Now considered a big-game hunter, his back-nine performance Sunday will provide plenty of motivation this offseason.
First, there was the uncommitted swing on 14 that led to a bogey. Then the approach into 17 that he didn’t hit cleanly, despite a perfect club (9-iron) and number (161 yards). And finally the three-putt from long range on 18 in near darkness.
Yes, Fowler became only the third player in the modern era to post a top 5 in all four majors in a season, but Tiger and Jack are in a different league – at least they won one during those magical seasons.
“This is probably the one that hurts the most for me,” Fowler said. “This one I felt like I could go out today and win it.”
Stenson’s expectations were tempered not only because of his position (four back) but also because of the player he was chasing – a high-powered birdie machine who typically moves only one direction: Forward.
McIlroy’s flat start and Stenson’s front-nine surge (30) gave the Swede a chance for a long-awaited major title, but his rally-killing three-putt on 14 dropped him out of the lead, and a mud ball in the 18th fairway ended any hopes for a closing eagle.
Against a player like McIlroy, every miscue is magnified.
“I gave my all on every shot and every hole,” Stenson said. “That’s all you can do.”
In this new age, against this new king, even that won’t always be enough.