LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Two by two they marched out like perfect pairs to the ark bound for higher ground in a race against the clock, if not the rain.
Foreshadowed by a biblical morning downpour that turned the PGA Championship Sunday matinee into a midnight screening, or so it seemed, the 96th edition of the season’s final major will be recorded in history as 2014’s most entertaining final round and perhaps the moment Rory McIlroy crested the hill separating potential and proven.
Birdies were traded, leads were taken and lost with equal abandon, the final two groups played up a dark and gloomy 18th hole as a foursome and McIlroy may have finally taken his place as Tiger Woods’ heir apparent.
With a grit that transcended his status as a “nice guy,” McIlroy withstood every sling and arrow the all-star cast of contenders could heap on him. There’s been a reluctance in many circles to label the Northern Irishman Woods’ successor and subject him to the inherent dangers of unrealistic expectations, but with a closing 68 at Valhalla Golf Club there is no more ducking the question.
“It’s always hard to compare players,” said Henrik Stenson, one of five players who held a share of the lead during a frenzied final round. “But if he’s not the same, he’s not far behind. If I told you that if he were to win at least one major in the next five or seven years you wouldn’t be surprised, would you?”
No, we wouldn’t.
It’s not that McIlroy became the third-youngest player to win four major championships behind Woods and Jack Nicklaus. It’s not that he’s now won his last three consecutive starts, dating back to July’s Open Championship. It’s not that he now stands one green jacket away from a career Grand Slam. It’s how he won that fourth major that now elevates the 25-year-old to legend status.
This victory wasn’t like those walk-overs at the 2011 Congressional Open or ’12 PGA. This was a street fight from the moment McIlroy set out just before the dinner hour on the East Coast.
Clinging to a one-stroke lead, McIlroy bogeyed the third hole to drop into a tie with a resurgent Phil Mickelson and someone named Bernd Wiesberger. At the sixth hole he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker to drift two shots off the pace, and as he watched Rickie Fowler roll in a 28-footer for birdie up ahead from the middle of the 10th fairway he was a full three strokes out of the lead.
If his first three major championships were works of art, this one was a muddy brawl pieced together with duct tape and the kind of major moxie that turns good players into great ones.
From 281 yards, McIlroy pulled his second shot at the par-5 10th some 15 yards left and 30 feet below his intended target and could only smile as the ball bounded along the soggy turf to 7 feet.
The eagle putt moved McIlroy to 14 under and within one shot of Fowler.
“That was my lucky break,” McIlroy conceded.
But then luck had nothing to do with the rest of a flawless closing loop.
He birdied No. 13 from 9 feet to tie Fowler and Mickelson at 15 under – the first time in more than three hours he found himself back atop the leaderboard – and pulled away for good at the 17th hole after hitting his approach from a fairway bunker to 10 feet for biride.
It was the kind of gritty performance that had been missing from Rory’s resume, and why the ’14 PGA will likely go down as a crossroads for McIlroy.
“The other three (major victories) we were always in control. We weren’t in control here,” said McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald. “We’ll remember this one.”
Those who doggedly tried to wrest the Wanamaker Trophy away from the world No. 1 will certainly remember it.
Mickelson made the day’s biggest move, quickly climbing his way out of a three-stroke hole with birdies at Nos. 1, 3, 7 and 9 to turn with a share of the lead.
The same man who told the press last Saturday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that if he were able to play well it would “be out of nowhere,” held a share of the lead until the 16th hole when he missed the green, hit a heroic chip shot and eventually made a 10-footer for par.
“I know that regardless of how I played this week I’ve got to address some things these next three or four months,” said Mickelson, who finished alone in second place to post his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this year and secure his place on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. “These next four or five years I really want to make special.”
But it was Fowler who seemed destined to play the role of spoiler throughout the day, beginning his round par-bogey-birdie-birdie to tie for the lead and chipping in on the fifth to pull clear of the field.
But a bogey at the 14th hole dropped him one shot behind McIlroy and he failed to birdie the 18th hole, finishing tied for third place after a closing 68 to become just the third player to claim the Top-5 Slam. He joined Woods and Nicklaus as the only players to finish inside the top 5 in all four majors in a single season.
That, however, was little consolation.
“Right now it’s just the sting,” Fowler said. “I really felt like I could win this one. I was disappointed to come up short, but to look back on the full year and all four majors, definitely something to be proud of.”
Stenson, who tied for third with Fowler, took a similar approach to the week despite an unfortunate break at the 18th hole. Two shots back with one hole to play, the Swede’s drive found the fairway along with a large piece of mud. Predictably, his second shot at the par 5 sailed wildly into the gallery left of the green.
It was a common theme at the Mud Ball Open.
There’s nothing wrong with Valhalla as a major championship venue that an industrial-sized squeegee can’t fix. The realities of an outdoor game aside, the PGA of America’s fascination with the Nicklaus design is curious for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the association’s aversion to playing lift, clean and place despite a forecast that was on the biblical side of bad for most of the week.
The decision to play the ball “down” was even more questionable considering the PGA had no problem at the 2004 Senior PGA, which was also played at Valhalla, playing preferred lies.
In six of the last 11 championship rounds at Valhalla – counting the ’04 Senior PGA, ’08 Ryder Cup and this week’s PGA – inclement weather has impacted play.
But then Valhalla’s sloppy status did nothing to diminish the shine on McIlroy’s accomplishment. This, his fourth major in his last 14 Grand Slam starts, was different. This was better because he had to fight for it.
“It is the most satisfying,” McIlroy admitted. “To win it in this fashion and this style, it means a lot. It means that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind. I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a major and come out on top.”
He also knows what is next - Augusta National and the career Grand Slam. “Two hundred and (forty-two days until the 2015 Masters) ... not that I’m counting,” he smiled.
No, but the rest of us will be.