Tour Confidential: Rory McIlroy’s killer instinct at PGA, more Phil Mickelson drama, and will Tiger Woods win another major?

Tour Confidential: Rory McIlroy’s killer instinct at PGA, more Phil Mickelson drama, and will Tiger Woods win another major?

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the 12th hole Sunday during the final round of the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club.
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Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship, making up a three-shot deficit in the final nine holes for his third straight win. (The other two? The Open Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational.) What did you learn about McIlroy at Valhalla this week?

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): What I learned about Rory is that for all of his nice-guy persona, he actually is a nice guy — a nice guy with killer instinct, an ability to handle expectations and a talent for fighting back that is as good as golf has seen since Tiger in his prime.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine (@CameronMorfit): McIlroy showed he can gut it out even when he's not in possession of his A+ game, as he wasn't this week. I suspected all week that he was tired from the events of the last month, and he just admitted it in his lengthy winner's press conference. He said he was physically worn out, and flat for the first six holes Sunday, and all of it made him appreciate what Tiger did for all those years. Rory willed himself to victory here, and it was impressive considering how bad he looked at times. 

PHOTO GALLERY: Check Out the Best SI Shots of Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson From the PGA Championship at Valhalla

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: He's living in a cocoon of golf and it's working.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): That he can win from behind against a heavyweight field in vexing circumstances. In the long term this could be his most meaningful win, because he's surely going to be in tight major championship finishes with accomplished opponents more often than he strolls to comfortable wins.

Jessica Marksbury, associate editor, Golf Magazine (@Jess_Marksbury): I learned how gritty he can be. We saw a glimpse of that at Royal Liverpool, where he had to work a bit to win a major he wasn't going to run away with. But today was different. Rory trailed by three shots at one point and he was simply determined not to let this final round get away from him. He persevered where the other contenders faltered. His confidence never seemed to wane. It was an awesome performance.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Rory showed some serious guts. He didn't have it early on in the final round, but he hung in there. Then he turned the round around with the second shot into the par-5 10th, setting up the eagle. And kudos to him for admitting that wasn't the shot he was intending to play, as well as saying how lucky he was the tee shot on 18 didn't go in the water. So candid. So refreshing.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): He's become an even better closer than we realized. Rory's first two major victories were runaways. His third was fairly comfortable. This one was a blood quest. He didn't have his best form Sunday, but he pulled off the shots when he needed them. It was the grittiest win of his career.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): That he’s got an extra gear he can slip into that, in the coming years, is going to leave a lot of talented guys settling for second.

2. Phil Mickelson went from totally lost to totally awesome in just a week. For Mickelson, was this PGA a welcome sign of a turnaround or a lost opportunity to burnish his legend with a sixth major?

BAMBERGER: It added to his legend. By allowing Rory to drive on 18, it set up one of the oddest and most interesting finishes ever.

RITTER: You'd have to say it was a lost opportunity, given that he had a piece of the lead on the back nine on Sunday. Phil's legend is already secure, but this one would've been his wildest, zaniest and Mickelsoniest victory of them all. He gave it a great run.

MORFIT: He played so well, I hesitate to call it a lost opportunity. Even though he made a sloppy bogey or two this week he really didn't give this away at all, since he never got to 16 under. He's got to take it as a positive, and a sign that he's on the verge of another victory somewhere in the near future. I know Tom Watson is taking it as a positive sign.

GODICH: Phil shot four rounds in the 60s and 67-66 on the weekend. He didn't lose this tournament. Rory won it. The best thing Phil can do is take this momentum with him to the Ryder Cup and put the U.S. team on his back. I think he will. 

LEADERBOARD: Final Scores From the PGA Championship

LYNCH: Both. For a few hours Mickelson conjured the magic that has been sorely absent this season. But he was also the frustratingly familiar Phil of old, the one who couldn't find fairways when it mattered most and who watched par putts slide by late on Sunday. And at 44, who knows if this was his last charge at a major? This one will hurt.

PASSOV: Welcome sign of a turnaround for Phil. Was anybody really worried? Despite his lousy year, he has always proved that when he's fully engaged, he can turn on a dime. He played incredibly well, and it was fantastic to have him in the mix.

SENS: Both. He’s got to be pleased to have shaken off the slump. But can a player like Phil, after being in the hunt all day, really be satisfied with second place?

MARKSBURY: A little of both. Phil was coming on so strong through the front nine that I thought he may challenge the low score of the week, but then he lost some momentum. Had he kept his energy and adrenaline up, I think he may have subdued Rory's late charge a bit. But when you think of where his season was before this week, his performance is certainly a huge bright spot and a very welcome turnaround. I'm so disappointed the major season is over!

3. Will this star-packed, high-drama PGA Championship Sunday — Mickelson, McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, etc. — end all the hand-wringing about the post-Tiger future of the game?

SENS: This was by far the most entertaining Tiger-era major I’ve watched that didn’t feature Tiger. But none of those guys is ever going to move the needle like Tiger. The game will go on. Of course. But it would go on with a lot less worry if Woods could get his groove back.

BAMBERGER: Yes. Tiger is and was an exciting golfer. But there was golf before him and as we saw last week there will be golf after him.

PASSOV: Let's see what the overnight TV ratings are in the major markets.

LYNCH: It postpones the “sky is falling” chatter, but only until everyone remembers that Woods may not tee it up again this year. The only outcome that would have altered that narrative was a Fowler victory. I think he's the only potential game-changer out there in terms of boosting the profile of the sport among otherwise disinterested kids. A Phil win would have been a popular last stand for a man in the autumn of his career, but not a seismic event. The Rory victory merely confirms what we already know: he is by far the best in the game, probably the best of his generation.

MARKSBURY: It certainly did for me. What an outstanding showcase of the stars! While nothing can match the hype and excitement of Tiger, today's performances were more than enough to keep me tuned in and interested all day. If these guys keep playing well, golf's future is bright.

GODICH: The game has been going along quite nicely without Tiger for some time. And now we've got a new star to carry the torch. This is going to be some kind of fun.

MORFIT: This PGA gave us proof positive that golf can thrive and keep us glued to our seats in a post-Tiger world. Rory is an engaging, smart guy, and the game will be lucky to have him as No. 1 for as long as it lasts. But Day and Fowler are about the same age, and also pretty cool guys. Seems like there's gonna be a lot of great battles ahead, and when you throw in the clash of generations — Mickelson, 44, and Stenson, 38 — it just adds spice.

RITTER: Yes and no. It proved that the game still has magnetic stars and the capacity to produce dramatic finishes. I mean, if you love golf, it gets no better than what we saw Sunday. But did it translate to greater TV ratings and mainstream interest? That's the source of all the hand-wringing. Let's check the numbers Monday. 

4. Graeme McDowell was adamant that the PGA of America should've played under lift, clean and place rules Sunday. Was he right to complain? And how did Valhalla hold up as a major championship venue? 

MORFIT: To me it came off as a guy who was angry that he doesn't hit it farther. And I'm a G-Mac fan. How did it hold up? I'd say it barely held up, which was the same way Celtic Manor held up at the 2010 Ryder Cup. Those are the two muddiest, slipperiest golf courses I've ever seen. As for the bones of it, Valhalla is a big, brawny course. It's the type of course these guys find themselves on a lot. And it got a great champion at the end of a wild day. So in that respect it held up well.

LYNCH: Majors are supposed to be a test of a player's ability to handle bad breaks, including mud balls and soggy lies. Play it down. As a venue Valhalla has produced wonderful dramatic finishes, but that's despite a course design that is fairly pedestrian.

PASSOV: McDowell had a right to complain. The guys who played later got drier conditions. Still, there were a ton of quality golf shots hit in the wet. Credit the staff and drainage at Valhalla, too. And for that matter, credit Valhalla. It proved to be much more compelling for major drama than boring, rough-choked Oak Hill in 2013.

MARKSBURY: Had they played LC&P, I doubt we would have finished today. Maybe the earlier guys had a tougher break, but I didn't see any mudballs in the afternoon telecast. I think it was the right call to play the ball down. It is a major championship, after all! And I thought the venue was perfect too. I know a lot of people were complaining about the low scores, but I loved seeing all of those birdie and eagle putts rolling in. It was the most exciting major Sunday in years.

RITTER: Graeme was probably right. Fowler received a few free drops on the back nine, while Stenson didn't get as many. Not insinuating foul play, but when you play the ball down with so much water on the fairways, it's impossible for these rulings to be consistent. Why let something like that potentially decide the event? As for Valhalla, it was a birdie-fest to the extreme, but you can't argue with the leaderboard or the finish. The PGA will surely return there.

SENS: What’s that cliche about dealing with adversity? The course was soggy, yes, but playing it down didn’t seem beyond reason. And as long as everyone’s dealing with the same course and rules, I don’t see the problem with it. As for Valhalla, great viewing, with lots of echo chambers for reverberating roars. And if it’s not the “major” test we might like to see, it has brought the cream to the top when it has hosted, so let’s cut it some slack.

BAMBERGER: Graeme is always right. Except not this time. Leaderboard and quality of shots showed it was not necessary. LC&P should be for desperate situations. This wasn't.

GODICH: Majors aren't played with lift, clean and place. Time to move along. As for Valhalla, the place did what a major venue should do — produce some serious drama. And not just on Sunday. That Saturday golf was about as good as it gets.

5. Tiger Woods missed the cut at Valhalla – the site of one of his most storied major victories in 2000 — and looked completely out of sorts. Forget about Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors. Do you think Tiger will win one more major?

BAMBERGER:Yes, I think he will win more majors. Unless the golf gods are really, really pissed about the '13 Masters, the "oscillating ball" and some other things.

MORFIT: I don't think he will. One of the takeaways for me is how hard it's going to be for older players to win majors going forward. McIlroy is tremendous, and there are so many other mega-talents who are still in their 20s, starting with Fowler and Day, but moving on through Thorbjorn Olesen, Bernd Wiesberger and others. Let's say Woods gets it together and does almost everything right, the way Mickelson did this week. It's still not necessarily enough. 

LYNCH:  My prediction is two more: he'll win one outright and hang around late enough in another to take advantage of someone's collapse.  But it is sobering that the idea of Tiger being washed up is now a legitimate debate and not a laughable notion. Watching him this week was dispiriting, even before he reached for his back on Friday. We have just had the most exciting major championship Sunday in many years, and Tiger was (presumably) watching from his couch. Last week at Firestone he insisted he was 100% physically for three days, during which his play was utterly mediocre. This week it was even worse. He has never seemed further away from the breathtaking heights of 2000, and seems perilously closer to the end.

MARKSBURY: Tiger has another Masters in him, for sure. But he needs to heal, completely, first. 

RITTER: Depends how he looks upon his return in 2015. Woods did win five times last year, so it's hard to totally write him off, but the pressure only intensifies as his drought continues. I still think Woods might win one or two more majors. And if you're wondering about Jack's record, golf's most compelling storyline for several years now, the good news is that the chase is still on — only now the pursuer is Rory McIlroy. 

GODICH: Just like Jack at Augusta in '86, Tiger will have one more moment. Here's hoping it's in a duel with Rory and/or Phil.

SENS: Not unless he gimps away from his current swing. 

PASSOV: Yes — I think Tiger Woods has another major in him. He's the best course manager since Nicklaus and he knows how to get it done. Let him heal, and come back properly. He'll get it done again.

6. Bubba Watson took to Twitter to apologize to his fans after making outbursts during his rain-soaked round with Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer on Friday, a couple weeks after snapping at fans at the British Open. What has happened to the erstwhile folk hero of golf?

BAMBERGER: He's a great artist and like other great artists he's a crybaby.

LYNCH: Watson's folk hero image owes more to the hagiography common in golf media than the reality. The petulant, childish figure we've seen over the last few months seems to be struggling in the glare of his own fame. We've seen plenty of the same behavior from Tiger over the years, but at least Tiger never used the bible as a '”get-out-of-jail-free” card by telling fans that he's trying to be a better person for Jesus. I'd rather have a full-time sinner than a part-time saint. Bubba needs to drop a quarter to Bob Rotella.

MARKSBURY: I sympathize with Bubba a bit on the outburst front because, as every golfer knows, nothing is more frustrating than playing poorly. But refusing to participate in the long drive contest? So strange! He's become an important figure in the game so I really hope he can work out whatever he needs to to become fun Bubba again.

RITTER: The spotlight ratcheted up on Bubba after he won his second green jacket, and it's becoming clear that he could benefit from some basic media training (think before you speak)  and a dose of humility. He can still bounce back from these missteps — the public has an amazing capacity to forgive and forget — but right now his "folk hero" status seems to be fading fast.

SENS: Like most folk heroes, he turned out to be just a human being. And a pretty weird one at that.

PASSOV: I never liked anything about Bubba except his genius for hitting a golf ball…and I also knew that given the robots who populate the PGA Tour, he was fantastic for golf, even if I wasn't buying in. Maybe some introspection will help him regain his fans. The game could benefit from a happy Bubba.

MORFIT: Life, I suppose. It has a sneaky way of following you around on the golf course. Maybe Bubba is perturbed about something off the course, or maybe he just doesn't feel like he's playing up to his potential. This should have been a pretty good track for him, but he obviously was over it as soon as things got wet.

GODICH: We all know how eccentric Bubba is, but this is ridiculous. The guy needs to take an etiquette lesson or two from Rory.


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