KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Foes must find Rory McIlroy the most confounding of champions.
If he were a boxer, he would knock your teeth out and then help you pick them up.
He is fearsome in such disarming fashion, an unnerving combination of likeable and dangerous with those curly brown locks and that schoolboy smile.
McIlroy showed just how charmingly ruthless he can be again Sunday, winning the PGA Championship in a rout.
Graeme McDowell couldn’t help singing McIlroy’s praises, even as his fellow countryman from Northern Ireland thrashed him and everyone else in a record eight-shot rout on Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.
“I’m just proud and impressed and blown away by Rory’s performance under pressure today,” McDowell said. “He’s great for the game, an absolute breath of fresh air. He’s got a great attitude, great charisma and great character.”
With his second major championship title, McIlroy, 23, skipped over Luke Donald and Tiger Woods to move back to No. 1 in the world rankings. McIlroy couldn’t hold on to the top spot when he gained it earlier this year, but he looks like he is prepared to hold it a lot longer than seven weeks this time. This title, on top of last year’s eight-shot U.S. Open rout, was more than validation of the young man’s talent. It felt like a warning.
When McIlroy won the U.S. Open, his 268 total broke a record that Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods shared with a pair of other champions. When McIlroy won at Kiawah Island on Sunday, his margin of victory broke Nicklaus’ record (seven shots) for the PGA Championship.
“It’s bad news for the rest of us, but he’s going to keep getting better,” McDowell said.
For a short spell this summer, with McIlroy’s game slipping, his peers weren’t so sure how committed he was to getting better.
The question that loomed over McIlroy since he whipped the U.S. Open field at Congressional last summer wasn’t about his giant talent. It was about his heart. It was all about his desire and whether he really wanted to be a great player.
McIlroy felt the sting of the question this past year. He admitted as much Sunday at Kiawah Island.
With his rising fame, McIlroy began making news for more than golf the past year. The British press speculated his romance with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki was hurting his game. They met a year ago at a boxing match in Germany and began dating. After the former No. 1 in women’s tennis started sliding down the world rankings, there were stories declaring they were destroying each other’s careers.
The questions about McIlroy’s commitment struck a nerve.
“To be honest, it did motivate me,” McIlroy said. “I did want to go out there and prove a few people wrong. That’s what I did. It took me four weeks to get my game back and in shape and get out of my mini-slump, and this is the result.”
McIlroy seemed to be tilting too much toward charming and not enough toward fearsome this summer.
After winning the Honda Classic in a hot start to the year, McIlroy swooned. He was third going into Masters weekend and shot 77-76. He missed three cuts in a row in May, and then he missed the cut in his title defense at the U.S. Open in June.
Even his peers wondered what was happening.
McDowell was asked if he ever wondered about McIlroy’s commitment to being the game’s best.
“Maybe a year ago, I might have said, `I don’t know,’ but now I think he is,” McDowell said.
McIlroy admitted staying up late Saturday night at Kiawah Island to watch Wozniacki win a quarterfinal match at the Rogers Cup on television. With an early wakeup call Sunday to finish the third round, he took a nap before starting the final round.
McDowell believes the relationship has helped McIlroy, who is working on his body as well as his swing this year.
“I think Rory has learned a lot being inside Caroline’s world and watching her and watching her team help her achieve her goals,” McDowell said. “He has always been driven and motivated, but now I think he’s obsessed, and he has the passion. He has his body in great shape. His golf swing just keeps getting better and better. He’s got the whole package.”
McIlroy is showing he can build on a lead like few others can. It’s Tiger-esque, his ability to run up the score in majors. McIlroy knows how to get a lead and then put the pedal down and turn it into a bigger lead. That’s a rare gift in the game. Closing 54-hole leads is no picnic, as we’ve seen this year, but McIlroy can close ruthlessly.
The question now is whether McIlroy can build on his lead in a larger sense. Can he build it in his career? Can he build on the No. 1 ranking? Can he keep building on his two majors? Can he build a legacy as the best player of his generation? Can he hold off Tiger Woods if Woods keeps returning to form?
“I think it will be easier for him to handle this position now that he has won his second major,” Padraig Harrington said. “I think he can handle that expectation now. Now that he has delivered again, it’s going to be a lot easier for him.”
And a lot harder on his foes.
“Rory is just fearless, a little bit like Tiger 10 years ago, when he won majors by 15, 12 and 8,” Peter Hanson said. “There’s maybe him and Tiger who can strike the ball a little different than the rest of us can. And they have an extra gear.”
An extra gear to help him run over foes.
“He’s going to get better,” Harrington said. “Tiger’s not going to pick off a major unless he has his 'A' game out here.”