LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rory McIlroy won the 96th PGA Championship, the fourth major championship conquest of an increasingly legendary career, on Friday. For appearance’s sake, the trophy presentation will not be held until the completion of the final round, but make no mistake, this tournament is over.
McIlroy’s second-straight major championship victory ties him on the all-time list with, among others, Hall of Famers Ray Floyd and Ernie Els. Their majors came over a span of 17 and 18 years, respectively. McIlroy has roared to his four in just over three years, and there’s no indication that he will take his foot off the gas.
“When he feels it, he feels it,” said Geoff Ogilvy. “Some guys feel it for a week. He feels it for six months.”
Or will it be more like 16 years? McIlroy’s overpowering victory last month at the British Open touched off talk about golf’s new era, but following it up with another win at the PGA has given the distinct impression that nothing is impossible for a 25-year-old who is just now getting comfortable at the top. Halfway to the McIlSlam, Rory now has a date with destiny at Augusta, a course that fits his high draw beautifully. When he wins there in April, McIlroy will be only the sixth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam.
Just as at his three previous major championship victories, McIlroy beat into submission a long, soft golf course. In the pantheon of modern difference-making clubs, his driver has now taken a place alongside Tiger Woods’s putter and Phil Mickelson’s lob wedge. But the round that won this PGA was McIlroy’s brawl with Valhalla on Friday, when he hit only eight of the wide fairways and 11 greens yet still ground out a 67 built on superb scrambling, clutch putts (only 27 for the day) and clear-eyed thinking.
“Another very solid day’s work,” McIlroy said afterward. “It was just about managing your game.”
Starting his round in a steady rain on the back nine, McIlroy bogeyed the 12th hole out of the front bunker but bounced back with a birdie on the next hole. At 15, he drove it in to the rough and confronted an iffy lie. McIlroy played a conservative shot to the front of the green and was rewarded when his ball rolled pin-high to 20 feet. He buried the putt, and then at the par-5 18th, he produced what is fast becoming his trademark -- a tournament-altering eagle -- thanks to a gorgeous 4-iron.
Playing through the worst weather of the day, McIlroy toured the next six holes in one over par, but it was the key to his round, as he redeemed some “scrappy” shots with crucial up-and-downs. Then, when the rain eased off, he birdied two of the final three holes, yet another demoralizing finishing kick to the rest of the field.
“With Tiger [when he was at his best], the intimidation was you knew he was going to play well when he had the lead,” said Ogilvy. “Golf is a really hard game when you feel like you have to make no mistakes, which is what he made you feel. Rory makes you feel like you have to go really low around tough golf courses. That’s intimidating in itself. He’s not an intimidating guy in any way but the scores he shoots are intimidating.”
Indeed, McIlroy had become a feared front-runner because instead of protecting his leads, he relentlessly seeks to build them.
“If I’m two ahead going into the weekend here, I’m going to try to get three ahead,” McIlroy said. “And if I’m three ahead, I’m going to try to get four ahead … I’m just going to try to keep the pedal down and get as many ahead as possible. That is my mind-set whenever I’m leading the tournament.”
This lesson was learned the hard way, when he coughed-up a four-stroke lead at the 2011 Masters, what McIlroy says is the only time in his career he has played prevent defense. Other life lessons have followed.
If, say, Jordan Spieth were to win next year’s Masters, he would be ahead of McIlroy’s pace but with much growing-up to do: learning to manage his business affairs and media obligations and love life, all of it in the public eye. McIlroy has already done that, and now he can devote himself only to achieving his awesome potential.
While every other player in the field strains to chase down golf’s most dominant player, McIlroy will continue to la-di-da his way to history. As he said on Friday after clinching the victory, “When I’m playing like this it’s obviously very enjoyable and, ya know, I can’t wait to get back out on the course again tomorrow and do the same thing all over again.”