LOUISVILLE -- It was a clash of generations and a race between man and the setting sun. It was the world No. 1 looking suddenly vulnerable, an aging icon chasing one last big trophy, and two men trying to learn on the job what it takes to close the deal on golfing immortality.
The 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla was an instant classic.
In a topsy-turvy final round that featured 25-year-olds Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy, 38-year-old Henrik Stenson, and 44-year-old fan favorite Phil Mickelson, McIlroy found his game just in time. Warming to the fight and showing the explosiveness that has made him the game’s new standard of excellence, McIlroy came alive on the back nine to shoot 68 and win by one. Mickelson fired a final-round 66 to finish in solo second at 15 under.
Fowler (68) and Stenson (66) tied for third, two back.
“To win it in this fashion and this style, it means a lot,” McIlroy said. “It means that I know that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind.”
After falling behind by three shots in the middle of his round, McIlroy fired a back-nine 32 to win his fourth major championship title, and second in the last month. It was also his second PGA Championship win. He spoke reverently of Mickelson, the “second best player of his generation,” and how meaningful it felt to beat such a player on the back nine of a major.
The final hole was a race to the finish and played in near darkness for both of the last two twosomes, which PGA officials merged into a foursome for the sake of expediency. Mickelson needed to pitch in from just in front of the 18th green for a chance, but with his caddie, Jim Mackay, tending the flag, he missed his eagle try by mere inches. He tapped in for birdie and finished solo second when Fowler’s birdie putt horseshoed out.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” said Mickelson, whose bogey at the par-4 16th hole, where he couldn’t find the fairway with his tee shot, would prove costly. “I thought that had I been able to finish those last five, six holes strong, I could have totally flipped the way I look at this year.”
Mickelson’s runner-up finish was his first top 10 of 2014, and it vaulted him from 10th up to fifth in the final Ryder Cup standings, meaning he has made Tom Watson’s team on points and will not require a captain’s pick.
Fowler’s tie for third gives him top-five finishes in all four majors this year, making him the only player in the modern era to accomplish that feat without winning one. “This is probably the one that hurts the most,” he said.
Fans hung onto fences and each other as they slid around on a course turned into a bog by an inch of rain that forced an hour-and-a-half delay. Players stepped gingerly, heads down, determined not to slip and fall.
An inch of rain made the course a dartboard as players took dead aim at pins, their iron shots hitting with a splat and sticking as if to Velcro.
Mickelson, carrying the flag for a generation of players that seems to be on its way out, went 5 under for the first 10 holes. A volunteer working the manual scoreboard behind the eighth green pumped his fist as he posted yet another birdie for the crowd favorite. The lefthander’s nutty par at the 12th elicited a massive roar after Mickelson drained a putt of 30 feet.
Soon after that, Mickelson’s co-leaders began to falter. Stenson, who had shot up the board with a 5-under-par 30 on the front, missed a 30-inch par putt at the par-3 14th hole, dropping to 14 under. Fowler, who made four birdies from holes 3 to 7 to grab the lead, lost his tee shot way right on the same hole.
By then it was starting to become apparent that Mickelson had another player to worry about, because McIlroy was waking up, shaking off a string of poor shots during his 2-over start over the first six holes. Playing well ahead of him, Ernie Els and Jimmy Walker were on their way to matching the low round of the tournament with a pair of 65s, but at saturated Valhalla the explosive McIlroy, who thrives in the rain, was treading water early.
“I just needed to make one birdie, that’s all I was saying, just make one birdie just to settle yourself,” he said.
He got it with an up and down at the par-5 seventh hole. His first red number of the day got him back to only 1 over for his round. He steadied himself with pars at eight and nine.
Then came another signature McIlroy moment, and perhaps the shot of the tournament, even though he later said it was an accident. At the par-5 10th hole, having just watched Fowler make birdie in the twosome ahead of him, McIlroy stood over his ball in the fairway. He was 284 yards from the pin, and now three strokes behind. He took a mighty lash with his 3-wood and watched as his ball chased onto the green and nestled to within seven feet of the pin.
“The ball flight was probably around 30 feet lower than I intended,” McIlroy said. “And the line of the shot was probably around 15 yards left of where I intended. It was lucky, it really was. You need a little bit of luck in major championships to win, and that was my lucky break.”
He made the putt and was just one back, at 14 under. His birdie at 13 got him back into a tie for the lead at 15 under, a number that Stenson, Fowler and then Mickelson couldn’t maintain.
“I needed to get the ball in the fairway on 16,” a glum Mickelson said afterward, “and I wasn’t able to do it.”
Stenson, pressing at the par-5 18th hole, badly pulled his second shot and watched as it soared into the crowd and came to rest in a muddy lie, from which he could manage only a par. McIlroy birdied the 17th hole from out of a fairway bunker to get two clear of Fowler and Mickelson.
“I just hit it,” McIlroy said. “I wasn’t thinking about what it meant -- I saw it was getting dark and I was like, ‘Right, I’d better hit this pretty soon and hole the putt and get on to the 18th tee and try to get this thing done.’”
McIlroy banked $1.8 million for the victory, which puts him just behind the major championship-winning pace of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, who famously outdueled Bob May at the last Valhalla PGA in 2000.
McIlroy was never at his best for a full 18 holes, but when he was good he was very good. He even caught the lid of the 27-pound Wanamaker trophy before it hit the ground when the PGA of America’s Ted Bishop lost control of the thing on the 18th green.
The winner admitted he’s already counting the days until the 2015 Masters -- 242, if you were wondering -- when he will attempt to win the only major that has eluded him.
“To win a fourth major here,” McIlroy said, “to be one behind Phil, one behind Seve, level with Ernie, level with Raymond Floyd; I mean, I never thought I’d get this far at 25 years of age.”