KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Smile.
That was the message from Dave Stockton Sr. to Rory McIlroy last week, at least according to the Ulsterman. To be historically accurate, Stockton’s delivery was something a tad more PG-13 than that, but the essence of the putting guru’s point was clear.
For some reason the world’s most happy-go-lucky kid had gone hangdog when the going got hard. Despite a budding romance, burgeoning career and big bank, “Rors” had grown up in the worst way when things were going well.
“I turn on the TV and look at him and see he’s not playing well. I told him I don’t want to know that. I drilled him last week,” Stockton said of the conclave he had with the 23-year-old in Akron, Ohio.
“I said, ‘You can’t do that, you just cannot do that. Jack never did that. Tiger never did that.’ Nicklaus was the best. I’m sure he got mad but I don’t remember him ever showing it. Rory’s smart, he’ll pick up on that.”
Little did Stockton know that it would take less than a fortnight for the message to sink in. With power, precision and no small amount of pleasure, McIlroy rolled over the field at the 94th PGA Championship with a 67-66 weekend that added up to a record eight-stroke margin of victory.
He did it on a golf course that is billed as America’s toughest.
“I watched him at Congressional (at the 2011 U.S. Open) and this was better,” said fellow Ulsterman David Feherty, who was the on-course reporter following McIlroy on Sunday. “Congressional didn’t have the disaster potential on every hole. Out here you don’t talk about a one-shot swing or a two-shot swing; you can lose three or four.”
As McIlroy scaled the hill to the Ocean Course’s 18th hole late Sunday, he had eight to spare. In fact, had the PGA been a match play gathering, like it was until the 1958 event, McIlroy would have been dormie . . . on the 12th hole.
On a Sunday that felt like a Ryder Cup with Europeans running in putts across the property, McIlroy put the finishing touches on a weather-delayed, third-round 67 before lunch and retreated to his rented house to nap. The rest of the day only felt like a dream.
McIlroy began the final round three shots clear of Carl Pettersson, birdied the second from the mulch left of the fairway and turned with a perfect 33 for a two-stroke advantage over a charging Ian Poulter.
Neither Poulter nor anyone else would get any closer thanks to 14 feet of par-saving putts at Nos. 13 and 14 and birdies at the 16th and 18th, the last a 30-footer to clip Nicklaus for the PGA’s margin-of-victory standard.
Yet as impressive as McIlroy’s 27-hole Sunday was, it will be a second-round 75 on fierce Friday that likely secured his second major. Four over through 13 holes in winds that gusted to 30 mph, he rallied with two late and unlikely birdies to keep pace with the lead and his title hopes alive.
A few weeks ago grinding out a score wasn’t among the phenom’s primary attributes, which prompted Stockton’s one-on-one in Ohio. Since his historic victory last year at Congressional, McIlroy hadn’t finished better than 25th when it counted at a major, but on Sunday the attitude finally fell in line with the talent.
“I was 4 over through 13 holes on Friday. It had all the signs of a round that could get away from you. I dug in there deep,” said McIlroy, who finished at 13-under 275. “I definitely feel like I'm getting better at handling conditions like that and being able to just know when a 74, 75 is a decent score and move on and know that the next day should be a bit better.”
“Decent” doesn’t come close to describing McIlroy’s Sunday, thanks to a near-flawless driver and a short game that produced 12 one-putts. If his Congressional Open was magical, Kiawah had a care-free mechanical feel to it.
“He had that ‘I’m winning this’ feeling to him,” said caddie J.P. Fitzgerald.
That confidence was likely fueled by a field that, other than Poulter, remained at arms length throughout a warm and breezy day along the Atlantic Ocean.
Pettersson, who led the event from the outset with an opening 66, drifted away after he was tagged two shots on No. 1 for brushing a leaf with his club while playing from the hazard.
Surreal that he would find the only place on property where he couldn’t ground his club.
In the ultimate bounce-back, Pettersson proceeded to birdie four of his next five holes after learning of his infraction and finished tied for third place at 4 under, a stroke behind little-known runner-up David Lynn.
“I didn’t think twice about it when I hit the shot,” Pettersson said. “One of those bad rules in golf.”
It may be just as well. Had the Swede-turned-Carolinian scored a major breakthrough it would have caused a minor revolt in European circles. Pettersson would not have qualified for captain Jose Maria Olazabal’s team even if he’d won the PGA because he is not a European Tour member, hasn’t been since 2002. Pencil whippings all around for the affable “Swedish redneck.”
Other than McIlroy’s work of art, it was all part of a hard-luck week. Pettersson can’t play for the European team and Woods can’t connect the 36-hole dots at a major championship, apparently still a step shy in his steady climb back to dominance.
In his last three majors Woods is 11 under in Rounds 1 and 2, and 13 over in Rounds 3 and 4 and he has not broken par in a weekend round at a major in 2012.
On the weekend at Kiawah the culprit was a suddenly dodgy putter following two stellar short-game days to start the week and Woods’ major drought now has eerie symmetry. He is now 0-for-14 in the majors in four years in his attempt to get off the 14-major schneid.
“I came out with probably the wrong attitude (on Saturday),” said Woods, who finished tied for 11th at 2 under following an even-par card to close the week. “I was too relaxed and tried to enjoy it and that’s not how I play. I play intense and full systems go. That cost me.”
Similarly, South Carolina’s first major was something short of a walk-off. As one longtime Tour observer mused during a particularly long commute - five hours for some - following Saturday’s washout, the only differences between Kiawah and Alcatraz outside of a picturesque golf course is it is easier to get off Alcatraz.
The logistical criticism was compounded by officials' decision to play the Ocean Course “through the green,” which is to say if it looks like a bunker, feels like a bunker and plays like a bunker it must be a “sandy area,” the term PGA officials deemed Kiawah’s faux hazards.
“That's the most odd thing I've ever experienced: playing this course, that there's actually not a bunker on it,” said Adam Scott, who finished tied with Woods at 2 under.
About the only thing not odd about the Kiawah PGA was the smile on McIlroy’s face. It’s been awhile, but as he beamed his way up another sun-splashed 72nd hole it was like it never left.