KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Maybe, just maybe, Rory McIlroy is finally ready for the throne.
There isn't another major championship on the horizon for the next eight months, so there is plenty of time for debate, but the Age of McIlroy may have finally begun. Sorry, Tiger, you knew this day coming.
Northern Ireland's McIlroy, 23, is the winner of the 94th PGA Championship here at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. He won in a rout, shooting 13-under 275 to beat runner-up David Lynn by a record eight shots in a victory reminiscent of McIlroy's first major championship, an eight-shot win at the 2011 U.S. Open.
"To sit up here and see this trophy and call myself a multiple major champion, I know I've talked about it in the past, and not many people have done it," McIlroy said. "I'm very privileged to join such an elite list of names."
Golf has been waiting for a new king ever since Tiger Woods assumed the throne with that Masters win for the ages in 1997. The rush to judgment began last year when McIlroy romped past the U.S. Open field at Congressional, where the course was soft and slow and not much tougher than a regular PGA Tour stop. Still, McIlroy torched Tiger Woods's U.S. Open scoring record of 12 under par by shooting 16 under. Sixteen!
(Related Photos: Rory McIlroy's Career In Pictures)
Now he's gone and knocked off the PGA Championship margin-of-victory record, set when Jack Nicklaus won by seven at Oak Hill in 1980. Is this kid — and I'm using that term loosely — any good? Yes. He's already brushing shoulders with legends. A better question may be, is this kid as good as you-know-who?
"It's tough to say that Rory is a Tiger Woods-type player," said former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, a fellow Northern Ireland native. "Tiger is a once-in-a-lifetime player. Rory is at least a once-in-a-decade player. He's that good. I've been saying it for years, how good he is, and here we go again."
Any world ranking debate seems to pale in comparison to the larger issue of whether McIlroy is now golf's king of the hill after his 67-66 finish here. That ascent seemed to have already happened when he won the Honda Classic last March, holding off His Majesty Tiger Woods, who threw a Sunday 62 at Rory with no effect.
That anointment was premature. McIlroy stumbled under the glare of the 24/7 modern media machine that followed him and his tennis star girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, across the globe. He missed the cut at the BMW PGA Championship, the European tour's flagship event, where he was some 21 shots off the lead. He missed four out of five cuts at one point this season, including at the Players Championship and the U.S. Open. His work ethic and dedication to the game were questioned by the media, which inspired him to prove them wrong.
"To be honest, it did motivate me," McIlroy said. "I did want to go out there and prove a few people wrong. That's what I did. It took me all of four weeks to get my game back in shape and get out of my mini slump, and this is the result."
At the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where he tied for 60th, he beaned a young spectator. When he learned the fan was camping out for the week, McIlroy found a hotel room (an amazing feat) and put him up for the duration of the tournament.
Winning or not, the kid has heart. As slumps go, what McIlroy went through over the summer was barely a blip, and it might have been just what he needed. His game returned at the Ocean Course. He finished off a 67 in the storm-delayed third round on Sunday morning, then shot three under par on the first nine of the final round. He simply outdistanced his pursuers, which didn't make for the most exciting victory, but it was a convincing one. Quite a contrast to Adam Scott's British Open meltdown, which led to a victory for Ernie Els.
McIlroy is now ahead of the major pace of Woods. McIlroy turned 23 three months ago; Woods won his second major, the 1999 PGA at Medinah, when he was 23 years, 7 months old.
Ahead of Tiger's pace, behind Tiger's pace — it doesn't really matter. Tiger's run, which led to 14 majors, was so remarkable that it's amazing to even be on a similar trajectory. This is the dawn of a great opportunity for McIlroy, and he will fuel our golf conversations until we return to Augusta National next April.
As for Tiger, all you really needed to know was the scene at the par-5 second hole in Sunday's final round. He reached the green in two and had a lengthy eagle putt. His roll looked promising, but as his ball went past the hole, Woods fell to his knees as if begging it to go in.
(Related Photos: Sunday at the 2012 PGA)
That's what Woods was reduced to on Sunday, begging. He took himself out of the tournament with a terrible front nine in the third round, which was stopped by storms Saturday evening, and then failed to make a move on his back nine on Sunday morning.
"I was right there, and I came out with the wrong attitude yesterday," Woods said. "I was too relaxed and tried to enjoy it, and that's not how I play. I play intense, all systems go. That cost me. It was a bad move on my part."
It's a curious explanation that raises more questions than it answers, but in the meantime, it's clear that Woods has made progress with rebuilding his game. He's won three times this year, and he's gotten into contention in three majors, at least until the weekend.
"The thing is to keep putting myself there," Woods said. "The key is putting myself there each and every time, and I'll start getting them again."
In the final round Sunday afternoon, Woods needed to make something happen early, especially since McIlroy broke out of the gate with two birdies in the first three holes. But Woods couldn't get it done.
The most animated Woods got all day was on the third hole, where he missed the green long and made a less-than-stellar pitch to 12 feet. He left himself a curvy, swinging putt and poured it in. That elicited his trademarked air punch, which was telling. Have you ever seen Tiger Woods celebrate like that for a par on the third hole of the final round? Yes, he wanted this one.
Other than another birdie at the par-5 seventh, Woods didn't make anything happen. In fact, he had to scramble for several par saves. A great one came at the 10th, where he drove into the gallery, near some temporary fencing, and played a shot off the matted, bare ground used as a cart path. That shot reached the greenside bunker, and he got up and down to keep his faint hopes alive. The problem was, Woods had started the final round five shots behind McIlroy. His two-under 34 on the front was good, but not good enough to catch McIlroy, who posted 33.
The air went out of Woods when he chopped up the par-5 11th. He played his third shot out of a dune left of the fairway and popped it up, barely getting onto the grass. From there, he made an indifferent pitch to 20 feet and missed the putt. Making bogey on a par 5 when he needed birdie was a death knell, and he knew it.
"I putted really well today," Woods said. "Unfortunately, I just didn't give myself enough good looks. Just the way it goes."
The real challengers of the day were Ian Poulter and Carl Pettersson. Poulter, the brash Englishman who is a former World Match Play champion, birdied the first five holes in the final round to race into second place. He added a sixth birdie at the par-5 seventh, then bogeyed the eighth from a greenside bunker, before getting two more birdies at the 11th and 12th.
Poulter's swing isn't the most reliable, but the man can putt, and his putter was sizzling early in the day. He made four bogeys in his last six holes, however, and finished four under, tied for third.
Pettersson, a transplanted Swede who played college golf at North Carolina State and looks like your beer-drinking buddy from the bowling league, sparked the controversy of the day. He drove into a slope inside a hazard on the opening hole and played it out. He made an apparent par, then birdied the third hole. Coming off the fourth tee, he was approached by rules official David Price, who informed him of a two-shot penalty because replays showed Pettersson's club hitting a dry leaf on his backswing in the hazard. That's moving a loose impediment, a penalty. Pettersson was understandably not happy, but he did the smart thing — he got even. He birdied the fourth, fifth and seventh holes to join Poulter in what turned out to be a futile race to catch Rory.
"I knew I could touch the grass, I just didn't think about the leaves," Pettersson said. "I didn't think twice about it when I hit the shot. But the ruling made me more motivated. I got a little fired up. Who knows what would've happened? But Rory played great."
All McIlroy wanted this week, he'd said earlier, was a chance to get in contention and feel the familiar buzz that comes with challenging for a major. He got that, and more. He may or may not be golf's new dominant player — we'll see — but we know that he is halfway to the career grand slam already.
"I hear Tiger say, to make a good season a great season, you need to win a major championship," McIlroy said. "Now I've had two great seasons in a row. Hopefully, I can play some great golf from now until the end of the year and get myself ready for another great season next year, too."
You can look forward to months of Tiger-Rory comparisons. With his two whopping margins of victory and the media's insatiable need for superstars, it is inevitable.
"I've won my second major at the same age as Tiger, but he went on that incredible run and won so many," McIlroy said. "I'd love to sit here and tell you I'm going to do the same thing, but I just don't' know. It's been great to win my first major and to back that up with another one. I can't ask for more."
Neither can golf fans. It's too early to call it a race, of course, but the scoreboard now reads: Tiger 14, Rory 2.
It's a start.