CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rory McIlroy considers it his most important shot of the year, one that ultimately led to victory Sunday in the Quail Hollow Championship and made him the youngest PGA Tour winner since Tiger Woods.
It wasn’t the 5-iron up the steep hill on the 15th that settled 3 feet away for eagle. Nor was it the 7-iron out of the bunker on the 16th hole that was so good he didn’t even bother to watch it land 5 feet from the cup.
The shot wasn’t even on Sunday.
The 20-year-old from Northern Ireland was on the verge of missing his third cut in a row. He was two shots over the cut line with three holes to play late Friday afternoon when he fearlessly hit a 4-iron from 206 yards into the breeze and right over the water to 6 feet for an eagle. He made the cut on the number.
“The rest,” he said with his engaging smile, “is history.”
Was it ever.
McIlroy shot the lowest round each of the last two days at Quail Hollow, and the final round was nothing short of spectacular. Playing with final five holes in 5 under – and finishing with six 3s on his card – he set the course record with a 10-under 62 for a four-shot victory over Masters champion Phil Mickelson.
McIlroy finished in style, rolling in a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole and thrusting his fist in the air, his freckled face bursting with joy as thousands of fans leapt from their chairs around the green.
“I suppose I got into the zone,” said McIlroy, who celebrates his 21st birthday on Tuesday. “I hadn’t realized I was going in 9, 10 under. I just know I got my nose in front and I was just trying to stay there.”
Woods was 20 years and 10 months when he won his first PGA Tour event in Las Vegas in 1996.
McIlroy’s win capped a big Sunday for two of golf’s brightest young stars. Earlier in the day, 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa became the first player on a major tour to shoot 58 in winning on the Japan Golf Tour.
McIlroy delivered an awesome display of skill that left two-time major champion Angel Cabrera in his wake and put Mickelson too far behind to catch up.
With a one-shot lead, McIlroy hit a 5-iron into 3 feet for eagle on the 15th, followed with a birdie from the fairway bunker on the 16th, then nearly holed a 55-foot birdie across the green on the par-3 17th. The finish was sheer magic, a 40-foot putt that poured into the center of the cup and set off a big celebration.
“The last two days, it seemed as if everything had just gone right,” said McIlroy, who will move to No. 9 in the world ranking. “You get yourself into sort of a mindset like that, and you just keep going. It’s just been a great day.”
He finished at 15-under 273 and won $1.17 million.
And so ended a week with record scoring, good and bad. Woods left on Friday, missing the cut for only the sixth time with the highest 36-hole score (153) of his career. McIlroy finished out the week with a 62, breaking by two the course record at Quail Hollow.
Mickelson was in the hunt until he had to play a right-handed shot from the woods on the 10th hole and made bogey. When he got around to making a charge, McIlroy already was too far ahead. Mickelson closed with a 68, which he figured would be good enough to win.
The roars he heard ahead of him told him otherwise.
“I’ve got to congratulate Rory,” Mickelson said. “He played some incredible golf. He’s an amazing talent. You knew he was going to come out and win out here. He is some kind of player.”
Cabrera was tied for the lead with eight holes to play until his putter failed him. The former Masters and U.S. Open champion missed five putts inside 10 feet on the back nine and shot 68.
Billy Mayfair, who had a two-shot lead going into the final round, lost the lead by hitting into the water on the par-5 seventh for a double bogey and closed with a 76.
McIlroy becomes the first player since Chris Couch at New Orleans in 2006 to make the cut on the number and win the tournament, and it all started with that eagle on Friday.
“Most important shot of the year, to be honest,” McIlroy said. “If I don’t make eagle there, I’m practicing at Ponte Vedra this weekend. I said after the 66 yesterday, ‘That could have been the turning point in my season.’ I think today I’ve confirmed that.”
Padraig Harrington of Ireland closed with a 68 and hung around for two hours to congratulate the kid when he finished. He was growing concerned for McIlroy, who was under enormous pressure since turning pro when he was 18.
McIlroy added to the hype by winning the Dubai Desert Classic last year at 19 and nearly winning the Order of Merit. He had been struggling this year with lower back problems, alarming for someone so young. He had missed two cuts going into Quail Hollow, and had not had a top 10 since the first week of February.
“At home, no matter how he does, the focus is on him,” Harrington said. “When you’re not winning, not delivering, the focus becomes a burden. If he can get across the line here, he can go from strength to strength. He will be a lot more comfortable with who he is, a lot more patient. The win is significant – very significant – at this time.”
He crossed the line at full speed.