Padraig Harrington showered and put on a clean T-shirt, then waited near the Quail Hollow clubhouse entrance. The gregarious three-time major champion from Northern Ireland wanted to be the first to congratulate his countryman, Rory McIlroy, who had just won the Quail Hollow Championship. The scoring room entrance practically turned into a receiving line because Tour players Jim Furyk and Aaron Baddeley, Masters runner-up Lee Westwood and his caddie Billy Foster, and others were there to greet McIlroy too.
"That's how you finish a tournament," McIlroy jokingly told Westwood, who joined the freckled about-to-be-21-year-old in giddy laughter.
The how was stunning and dramatic. A course–record 62 in the final round at Quail Hollow, a tough track in Charlotte being considered for a future PGAÂ Championship (and probably a lock to get one). A scorecard that featured a dozen 3s. Thirty on the back nine. A majestic eagle at the par-5 15th hole, where McIlroy slammed the door with a five-iron to 3 1/2 feet. A tight seven-iron shot from a fairway bunker at the next hole for a birdie. And after a lipped-out 55-footer for birdie at 17, a surreal 43-footer for birdie on the 18thÂ green that pushed him to 15 under, four shots clear of Phil Mickelson.
What was it Tiger Woods had said two days earlier when he made a messy and surprising exit after a round of 79 and a 36-hole score of 153, the highest total of his pro career? "At least I get the weekend to watch and see how it's done, how real players play golf." It was a weak attempt at humor by Woods, who isn't known for his comedic musings, but a successful attempt at dodging a question about his game. So, Tiger, were you watching?
McIlroy, the delightful youngster from Holywood, Northern Ireland, lived up to the great expectations for him with a sizzling finish. Meanwhile, the game's dominant player for the past decade followed up his sloppy Masters weekend with a worse performance. When he four-putted the 15th green for his second-straight double bogey, missing consecutive putts inside four feet because he either didn't care or was punishing himself, it may have been the moment the torch was passed.
But to whom? To Mickelson, the Masters champion, for now. The World Golf Rankings say Woods is still No.Â 1, but in the Real Life Right Now Rankings, Mickelson is already the best golfer in the world and the most popular. By a wide margin in both cases. Tiger is in no position to argue either point. The 79, his highest score in a nonÂmajor, his sixth missed cut in 241 pro starts and his Masters fade are red flags. Sure, Tiger moved forward on his image makeover. He signed autographs for 20Â minutes on pro-am day, and on the course he latched on to a new favorite fÂ bomb: "Fore!" But his golf game, whether it's due to a five-month layoff or the Âscandal-related marital issues, is in a shambles.
Mickelson played well enough to win in his first start since the Masters three weeks earlier. But Phil is almost 40, nearly twice as old as ÂMcIlroy, and he was simply outplayed. "You don't expect a 62," Mickelson said. "He is some kind of player."
Maybe Tiger will rediscover or retool his game as he continues his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's recÂord 18 major titles. Maybe Phil is just entering the prime of his career and is going to have a run like Vijay Singh did in his 40s. And maybe ÂMcIlroy is still a few years away from climbing to their level on a regular basis. Yet it was difficult to shake the notion that this Quail Hollow Championship represented something bigger, like that 1960 U.S.Â Open when Ben Hogan made his last stand, Arnold Palmer cemented his iconic status with an unforgettable charge and a young Nicklaus introduced himself as the true future of golf.
Mickelson's swing has probably never been better. Yet it does seem odd to finally pass Phil the torch after a youngster blew him out of the water, while Japanese teen Ryo Ishikawa fired a 58 to win in his home country and Spain's Alvaro Quiros, 27, a big hitter with a ton of talent, won a European tour title in his homeland on the same day. Promising players all, but ÂMcIlroy is the only one of the three with a PGA Tour victory on his rÃ©sumÃ©.
The kid is going to be a star for as long as he wants, predicted CBS analyst David Feherty, who's also a native of Northern Ireland. Two days shy of his 21st birthday, McIlroy is the youngest PGA Tour winner since Woods in 1996. "You can't compare them, but it was astonishing to have the guts to do what Rory did today," Feherty said. "He was just going further and further and further ahead. And that does remind you of somebody."
It appeared that the shadow of Woods would loom over the entire tournament, given the pre-event hype about the Phil-Tiger rivalry. Woods clearly wasn't up to his part. Mickelson was, shooting a closing 68. By Sunday night, however, McIlroy's heroics made Tiger a distant memory, which no one thought was possible.
Golf's latest Next Big Thing is a Âpleasure modest (but not too much so) and down-to-earth. He's got "Rors" sewn on the back of his cap. That's what his friends call him. He was asked about comments he made at Augusta (where he missed the cut by four shots) about putÂting away his clubs for a spell and skipping Quail Hollow. "Yeah, that would have been a good idea," he said, drawing laughter.
He made an eagle late in the second round he played a four-iron from 208Â yards to six feet on the 7thÂ hole that enabled him to make the cut on the number. "That was the most important shot of the year, to be honest," he said, grinning. "If I don't make eagle there, I'm practicing at Ponte Vedra this weekend (for the Players). I said that could have been the turning point in my season, and today I think I confirmed that."
Will this someday be considered a turning point of bigger proportions, a crossroads in the careers of three historically important players? It will be years before we know for sure. Just file away the final image of Rors pouring in that unlikely putt at the 72ndÂ hole and then punching the air with his right arm. It did, as Feherty said, remind you of somebody.