LOUISVILLE -- This is no time to spare the hyperbole. Let’s put the whip to it just like the jockeys do up the road at Churchill Downs every first Saturday in May.
This was the PGA Championship’s finest hour. With apologies to Tiger Woods and Bob May here at Valhalla, Paul Azinger and Greg Norman at Inverness, Tiger again at Hazeltine and Medinah, let’s go ahead and crown this 96th PGA Championship as the wildest and most exciting PGA in the last three decades.
It was crazy. It was thrilling. It was literally a race against time to finish before dark -- that was the PGA of America’s fault for sticking to its planned 7 o’clock finish, which left little wiggle room for a delay or a three-hole playoff. They finished in the dark, just barely, and cut a few corners of protocol to do it, but they finished.
Rory McIlroy won this PGA but you can’t say Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson lost it. Each made a costly mistake on the closing holes, yes, but it was such an exciting dogfight in a major championship that you can’t hold it against them. This game trio, the Valhalla Three, didn’t truly lose the PGA. They just didn’t win it.
The highlights of this latest shootout here will live long and large. Mickelson and Stenson each shot 66, Fowler shot 68.
It’s going to be difficult to remember exactly where it went wrong for the Valhalla Three because they were done in by such small mistakes. With birdies and eagles flying thanks to the rain-softened greens, even small mistakes ultimately loomed large.
Mickelson has six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open and, by my count, 14 close calls in major championships, a majority of those of which he’d tell you, if he was honest, that he should’ve won. This one might be included.
He started quickly here Sunday and dished off the pressure with birdies on two of the first three holes, and then two more in the last three holes on the front nine. For most of the back nine, the lead was shared by some combination of the three and McIlroy.
For Mickelson, the PGA came down to the 16th hole. It’s a long par 4 that played even longer in the soupy conditions. Mickelson hit a fairway wood and wanted to hit a draw around the corner but instead flared a fade into the left rough. From there, he gouged a shot from 234 yards that bounced up just short of the left bunker in the rough.
Still not a problem. The gallery jumped to its feet when his pitch bounced twice, hit the cup and ran out nine feet above the hole. That’s when the normally aggressive Phil made his error. He left his downhill par putt short, in the jaws. That bogey left McIlroy in the lead by himself and while Phil got a birdie back at the par-5 18th, it wasn’t enough. That one putt, or perhaps that drive into the rough, led to the bogey that thwarted Phil.
“I needed to get the ball in the fairway on 16 and I wasn’t able to do it,” Mickelson said. “I needed to get the ball in the fairway on 17 and wasn’t able to do it. Those two tee shots hurt. I don’t mind being wild but when you’ve got to get in the fairway, you’ve got to be able to do it.
“That was a costly bogey at 16 in the end,” he continued. “I botched it. I flew the pitch way too far. I needed a lucky break there. If it one-hops in like it almost did, it would have been a two-shot swing. I thought that had I been able to finish those last five or six holes strong, I could have totally flipped the way I look at this year.”
The par-3 14th hole was where Fowler fell a stroke off the pace. He watched Mickelson stick a good six-iron shot to 18 feet, then pushed his own six-iron shot way right. It was so bad that Fowler immediately held up his right arm and pointed right, to warn the gallery.
Fowler’s ball came to rest near the cart path in a sea of tapioca-like mud where the gallery had been walking and standing. After a drop to a playable spot, Fowler pitched it well past the hole. He faced a dangerously quick putt over a ridge for par from 15 feet and slid it past. That was a bogey, the one little stroke out of all the memorable strokes, that cost him the PGA.
“I was really trying to play fairly safe and just make a roll at a 3,” Fowler said. “I didn’t want to get cut and throw away two shots there. I hit a very good putt. I saw a lot of the hole and it come out the other side.
“I just wasn’t fully committed to the tee shot,” he said. “Just a bit of a mental error. Just probably a little bit of a second guess that threw off the process of setting up to the shot.”
That 14th hole tripped up the Swede, Stenson, too. It was nothing extraordinary, nothing flashy. Stenson had played his tee shot to 21 feet and was on what would be Fowler’s line, putting over that ridge. Stenson’s first putt rolled out three and a half feet past, then his par putt horseshoed out of the hole. One small putt for a man, one quick bogey that cost him the PGA.
Oh, Stenson missed the 18th green badly with his second shot -- a mudball that squirted left -- and he wound up settling for par there. Even if he’d made birdie, however, he would’ve come up one shot short of McIlroy.
In the highlights, you’re going to remember the stunning shots under pressure that the Valhalla Three pulled off:
*Mickelson pouring in a 30-foot par putt that he absolutely had to have at the 12th.
*Stenson making a big birdie putt at the semi-island-green 13th and then looking skyward in thankfulness because his approach shot had come so close to disaster.
*Fowler blocking his drive at the 16th over a creek and almost into the 15th fairway, somehow hooking an iron over the trees and onto the front green, then two-putting from nearly a hundred feet for a par to stay in the hunt.
There were more highlights, too many to mention. The trio managed 17 birdies between them -- six for Mickelson and Stenson, five for Fowler.
But there is only one winner in golf. That was McIlroy, who’s got his fourth major title at 25.
Mickelson, Fowler and Stenson came close, oh-so close. In the years to come, few will remember exactly how the found this victory slipped through each of their grasps. But they’ll remember.