CHARLOTTE, N.C. – He wasn’t supposed to take a major championship venue in waiting and turn it into the Bob Hope. He wasn’t supposed to rope a 7-iron from a fairway bunker at the 16th on Sunday to 5 feet, to say nothing of the 5-iron he rifled to 3 ½ feet for eagle a hole earlier. He wasn’t supposed to make the cut.
Yet there he was beaming from beneath a ball cap stuffed full of curly black locks celebrating the improbable with an impossibly stellar round just two days shy of his 21st birthday which would allow him to imbibe and possibly explain such behavior.
But on a wilting weekend Rory McIlroy was stone sober and stone cold, like a staff ace who plows through lineups on his way to a no-hitter.
“How about that round?” a wide-eyed Dustin Johnson sighed as he slumped onto the bench in front of his locker late Sunday.
How about it, indeed? And to think, with three holes to play in his second round on Friday McIlroy was closer to the weekend off than he was a weekend few will forget. But at that moment the turn came, with the flash of a 4-iron from the middle of the seventh fairway that sailed to 5 feet for eagle. He made the cut on the number, and history the rest of the way.
The rest of the way is the stuff of legend. Over his final 36 holes McIlroy was 16 under par on a golf course that was playing to a 72.9 average. That he did it on a pitch that seems destined to join the major championship rota was impressive to the extreme. That he did it with his first PGA Tour victory on the line and the lofty likes of Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera and Davis Love III keeping time with him is filthy.
“There’s wins and then there’s whatever this is,” gushed CBS Sports analyst David Feherty, who recently took up U.S. citizenship but couldn’t resist, “Almost makes me want to be an Ulsterman again.”
For the better part of the week the conversation was dominated by one superstar (Tiger Woods) haunted by questions and another (Mickelson) happily answering the call.
Mickelson’s game was not Augusta National sharp, but good enough to keep pace with the Monday-qualifying pacesetter Billy Mayfair through three rounds. Neither would be part of the conversation as Sunday afternoon turned to early evening at Johnny Harris’ slice of southern hospitality.
Mickelson struggled to find fairways, played from the pine straw (at the 10th hole, sound familiar?) and simply didn’t make enough putts to keep pace with McIlroy, while Mayfair, Love and Cabrera all failed to break 70. As for Woods, if he was watching the proceedings from home, like he joked on Friday after missing his second cut in three years, he must have enjoyed the show.
It was a two-part drama that started fast, with McIlroy going out in a clean 4-under 32, and ended in a flash.
“I didn't feel a 62 was coming, but I felt as if my game was definitely getting a lot better. The 66 yesterday was probably the worst I could have shot. I gave myself so many chances. I had five eagle putts,” said McIlory, whose 62 was a course record and 272 total was one shot off the tournament record set by Anthony Kim in 2008.
“You know, the last two days it seemed as if everything had just gone right. You get yourself into sort of a mindset like that, and you just keep going.”
After McIlroy’s third-round 66 vaulted him into the Sunday conversation, he started the final turn four back. By the turn he’d narrowed the gap and nosed ahead as the winds picked up with a birdie at the 11th hole.
He traded birdies with Mickelson, playing two groups behind McIlroy, at the 14th and held a one-shot lead as he walked to his tee shot at the 15th hole. From there, he pulled away like “Super Saver” on the rail in the third turn at Churchhill Downs.
The “3” at No. 15, one of six consecutive to close his round, was the front end of an eagle-birdie-par-birdie walk off that turned Quail Hollow’s famed “Green Mile” into the “Green Mild.” To put McIlroy’s trip into perspective, he played the hardest three-hole stretch on Tour six of the last seven years in 2 under par on a Sunday with hardware on the line.
Mickelson got a shot back with his own birdie at the 16th, but it was window dressing. Potential meet proof.
“He is some kind of player,” said Mickelson, who finished alone in second place, four strokes back at 277. “On the back nine I thought I’d be able to catch him until he played the 15th . . .”
As coronations go Quail Hollow makes for good theater and it seemed apropos that Kim was along for the Rory ride on Sunday. AK had set his own standard here, winning in record fashion in 2008, and could appreciate like few others the quality of McIlroy’s performance.
“It was unbelievable, I don’t know how else to say it,” Kim said. “He was in a zone. He hit a lot of fairways and made a lot of big putts. It seems like a lot of the younger guys don’t make those putts, but he did.”
McIlroy’s final heroic moment even got Kim’s blood pumping, a tumbling 42-footer at the last that charged into the back of the cup at the 72nd hole prompting a vicious low-five from the 2008 champion.
For a Tour rookie whose best stroke-play finish before Sunday was a tie for 40th and whose ailing neck had produced more newsprint in the United States than his game his four-stroke masterpiece was both heralded and harbinger.
But then McIlroy’s performance at the Mini-Masters – which, like its elder cousin to the south, was set up for speed, not comfort on Sunday – was a breakthrough that was foreshadowed last week on the chilly Northern Irish links at Royal Portrush.
Knowing his man needed a spark, McIlroy’s caddie J.P. Fitzgerald convinced him to take an impromptu trip to the famed links last Thursday and Friday.
“I told him, ‘Let’s go play and put a score on the board,’” Fitzgerald said. “He played fantastic and it was a spark. He’d been playing well and not scoring.”
As McIlroy worked the autograph line late Sunday the crowd broke into a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” his Tour breakthrough as good a gift as one could expect for the Northern Irishman, and for golf.