On Sunday night in County Kildare, there was a conversation that evoked for me the famous knock-it-close-hell-I'm-going-to-hole-it duet between Tom Watson and Bruce Edwards. Rory McIlroy had just arrived in the press room, still aglow from an instantly classic finish at the Irish Open, a victory he clinched with a birdie and an eagle at the 70th and 72nd holes after a pair of majestic approach shots.
"Many congratulations, young Rory," said European tour official Michael Gibbons. "You've hit some shots in your time, but tell us about that one."
"The 16th or the 18th?" asked McIlroy.
"Come on, 18 was better than 16."
"See, if you're a real golfer, you'd appreciate the 16th."
McIlroy said that with a smile, breaking up the room.
It was impossible not to appreciate both mighty blows. The 570-yard 16th hole was rain-softened and playing into the wind. "Today 16 is not reachable," Martin Kaymer said on Sunday, momentarily forgetting what McIlroy can do with a golf ball. One shot behind playing partner Russell Knox when he arrived at the tee, McIlroy smashed a clutch drive right down the middle. This was the fearless, freewheeling McIlroy who has been missing for the better part of a year.
"I never really planned to go for the green in two off the back tee on 16, but after that tee shot, I really didn't have any option," he said.
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Now McIlroy was 273 yards out, facing a slender green with water right. He carved a gorgeous high cut with a 3-wood to the center of the green. The ensuing two-putt birdie, plus Knox's three-putt bogey, gave the hometown favorite the lead. "The turning point in the tournament," McIlroy said.
He was still one stroke ahead playing the 537-yard home hole. After another textbook drive McIlroy had 253 yards to the pin. His majestic 5-wood traveled 252.5, curling to tap-in distance for an emphatic eagle that slammed the door on his 13th career Euro tour victory. "I mean, that shot that Rory hit on 18 was a joke," Knox said afterward.
McIlroy treats the Irish Open as his fifth major, so this was a deeply personal triumph, especially now that his eponymous charitable foundation is the tournament beneficiary. With Rory donating his winner's check, more than a million Euros were raised last week alone. The oft-stoic McIlroy was choking back tears on the final green. "It all just sort of hit me," he said. "I don't usually get emotional about golf or about wins, but this one, it means just a little bit more, because it's not just for myself. It's for a lot of other people. Yeah, it's a day I'll not forget for awhile."
In golf terms, the larger meaning of this win is that the game's greatest talent has awakened after a year-long slumber in which he was supplanted by Jordan Spieth and Jason Day. At the champion's press conference McIlroy was already looking ahead. "I kept saying I'm close and I felt that I needed a week like this to kick-start something," he said. "Hopefully this is the catapult into another great summer."
Indeed, golf has never needed him more. Spieth and Rickie Fowler have regressed this season, with Day turning the would-be Big Four into a one-man show. The pyrotechnics on Sunday served as a reminder that only McIlroy boasts the same kind of firepower as Day. This summer's major championships will be played at Oakmont, Troon and Baltusrol—tough, old-school tracks that demand macho ballstriking. Two swings have suddenly imbued McIlroy with the confidence to add to his legacy in this blockbuster year for the sport; let's not forget he has won more majors (four) than Spieth, Day and Fowler combined. Says McIlroy, "I really feel like my game is in good enough shape to kick on from here and to challenge in the three final majors, and obviously everything else we have to play for this year: Olympics, Ryder Cup, Race to Dubai, FedExCup."
One tournament he will skip is this week's BMW PGA Championship. That was a silver lining for one of the mere mortals McIlroy vanquished in Ireland. "I can't wait," Knox said, "and Rory's not going, so that's good for me." Two swings was all it took for McIlroy to reestablish a fear factor among his competitors. Here's hoping he can continue to summon these bold strokes, because McIlroy's brilliance makes the game so much more compelling.