McIlroy knocking on heaven's door as new era beckons
Omens good for World No 1 adding to Major haul if he can keep cool in Valhalla cauldron
It's six o'clock in the morning and the floodlit range at Valhalla shines so bright in the pitch darkness it must be visible from the International Space Station.
The pretty, young English ex-pat, whose duty it is this week to check in the golfers as they arrive at the practice tee, visibly blinks as a large figure emerges from the blackness and bids her a cheerful good morning as he marches past.
"It was Darren Clarke," she said. "I honestly didn't recognise him at first, he's lost so much weight."
In fairness, the Ulsterman's reputation in the United States as a real broth of a boy would make it difficult for anyone over here to imagine Clarke setting out at that godforsaken hour. Coming home? That'd be a different matter.
Within moments, another player arrived – world No 1 Rory McIlroy and, after half an hour of banter and ball-hitting, the two Northern Irishmen ambled over to the first tee and struck full-blooded drives into the murky, pre-dawn gloom.
Clarke somehow found his ball in the trees on the left. McIlroy carried the wooded corner of this slight dogleg and found the heart of the fairway, within short-iron range of the green.
With one brilliant shot, the 25-year-old reaffirmed why he is runaway favourite to win the US PGA Championship.
The sky seemed to get brighter with every stride as they walked after their shots, chattering amiably, oblivious to the veil of mist hovering over the rough.
McIlroy and Clarke, their caddies, a few family and friends completed the front nine in less than two hours and only picked up a posse of photographers and fans through the turn.
How their match stood is best measured by Clarke's cheerful mock exultation at winning the par-five seventh. "Won a hole," he exclaimed, raising both arms in the air. "Just four down."
Clarke won the par-five 10th as well, holing a five-foot birdie putt, even though McIlroy was just through the back of the green in two with a monster drive and towering three-wood.
The Holywood native's tee shot at 10 skidded to a halt on the soft, dew-laden turf just 10 yards shy of the flag marking Louis Oosthuizen's 340-yard winning effort in the Long Drive Competition in the dry heat of Tuesday afternoon.
For years, Tiger Woods led the dawn patrol on practice days at golf's Major championships, but that's not the only leaf McIlroy plans to take out of his book this week.
McIlroy also hopes to join Tiger in history by winning the British Open, the Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA Championship in quick succession.
Should he overcome the mental fatigue inevitably caused by his heroics at Hoylake and Firestone and romp to victory at Valhalla, McIlroy will show the world how great he really is.
In the unlikely event McIlroy doesn't prevail this Sunday on a course Jack Nicklaus designed in 1986, re-crafted in 2011 and looks a perfect fit for his young protégé, it'll prove how truly exceptional Tiger was.
Forced to abandon the final round of the Bridgestone on the ninth last Sunday after aggravating a lower back injury, one wag wondered aloud if Woods needed an air ambulance to get him from his south Florida lair to Louisville, Kentucky, by yesterday lunchtime.
The PGA of America gave Tiger until the last minute, if necessary, to make up his mind. Even if he manages to join Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington on the 10th tee at 8.35am local time this morning, one suspects Woods patently does not have the form or the game right now to be of any real relevance in this tournament.
All of the golfing world hopes that Tiger eventually regains some semblance of his former greatness, but the greatest threat to McIlroy this week comes from younger men, principally his fellow 25-year-old and long-time jousting partner Rickie Fowler; good friends Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose and the man he replaced as World No 1 last Sunday, Adam Scott.
Harrington is the most recent back-to-back winner at golf's Majors after his thrilling double at the Open and US PGA in 2008 and he views momentum as McIlroy's greatest ally at Valhalla.
"Clearly, he is playing fabulous at the moment and I just like the way Rory runs with it when he plays well," said the Dubliner. "Two months ago the golf world was crying why isn't he playing better and now he's world No 1 and everyone's saying he'll never not win again.
"I like the fact that when he does play well, he wins and he carries it through and that is a great habit to have."
Yet the superhuman effort involved in maintaining his focus through Hoylake and its cheerful, if brief, aftermath with the Claret Jug, all the way up to last Sunday afternoon's climax at Firestone, clearly drained the youngster.
It showed on Monday when he abandoned plans to play nine holes at Valhalla and took a well-deserved day off instead.
"I felt I needed just to recharge a little bit. It's more fatiguing emotionally and mentally when you win tournament than it is physically."
McIlroy has stirred a welter of excitement in golf with the overwhelming power and accuracy of his long game, but the true key to success is his ability to focus his entire being on each individual shot.
"When I'm mentally at my best on the golf course, all that goes through my head when I approach each shot is just that shot. When you talk about my game being in a zone, that's what it is. That's why you're seeing the sort of golf I've played over the past few weeks."
Nobody knows Valhalla better than homestate hero Kenny Perry (54), who has revered this place all his life; he lost only after a sudden-death play-off to Mark Brooks at the 1996 US PGA here and received rich recompense as a member of Paul Azinger's team as they romped to a rare Ryder Cup victory over its lush turf.
"I think around 15-under is going to win, I really do," said Perry. "When you imagine Rory McIlroy driving it like he can drive it and flipping those short irons into these holes, he can bust loose here."
Masters champion Bubba Watson, who plays in the same three-ball with McIlroy and runaway US Open winner Martin Kaymer, heads 'resting' Dustin Johnson and the diminutive Ulsterman at the top of the PGA Tour driving averages.
Much weight has been given to the strength McIlroy has gained in the gym, but Watson insists technique, not size, is important.
"I think his technique is so good that he can move the ball out there," the erratic, but gifted left-hander explained.
"Rory plays a big high draw and he's fit and strong too, so it doesn't surprise me he hits it so far. I don't care if he outdrives me or I outdrive him on Thursday or Friday, all that matters is the score. It's a big field, so we aren't looking at each other. We're looking at the score at the end of the week."
Fowler, like Garcia, admits he is looking forward to another big Sunday showdown with McIlroy. Like at Hoylake when they played in the final group together, or Quail Hollow in 2011 when the American completed his only PGA Tour win thus far in extra-time, or when he overcame McIlroy in Korea.
"We've had a great time walking the fairways together. It was fun to give him a little bit of a run on Sunday at Hoylake," said Fowler, who tied second in the US and British Opens and fifth at the Masters and is the only golfer this year to finish top five in all three Majors this season.
"Since we first played with each other at the 2007 Walker Cup in Royal Co Down, it's been fun to watch his career and to get to know Rory more the past couple of years by playing in the same events.
"I look forward to going head-to- head with him quite a bit more and this week is a definite possibility. He's on top of his game and driving it some of the best I've ever seen from him or anyone else. If he keeps doing it, he'll be tough to beat."
Especially so with Clarke's money in McIlroy's pocket after yesterday's traditional eve-of-battle match. The elder lifted the cash and, four days later, the Claret Jug at Sandwich in 2011, while the kid did the trick at Hoylake.
The omens are good. His game is great. McIlroy now must show exceptional mental resolve to usher in the dawn of the 'Rory Era'.
McIlroy's five hottest rivals
1. Rickie Fowler
Just a few months separate Fowler and McIlroy. Even if Ireland's world No 1 has three Major titles and 11 other professional victories to his name, against just two by the Californian, Fowler (25) has only begun to fulfil his enormous potential since linking up with coach Butch Harmon last winter. His three top-five finishes at the Majors this year, including a share of second at Hoylake, suggest he can be as big a threat to the Ulsterman as when he beat him in sudden death at Quail Hollow in 2011.
2. Justin Rose
England's Rose (34) has rarely bloomed at the PGA Championship. Third to Rory McIlroy at Kiawah in 2012 and ninth behind Padraig Harrington in 2008 at Detroit are his only two top 10s in 11 appearances. Yet this guy has the game for Valhalla, while his confidence is soaring following his win at the 2012 US Open with victories this summer at Congressional and in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen.
3. Adam Scott
A constant force at the Majors since picking up the broom-handle putter in 2011, Scott (34) achieved legendary status in Australia by winning the 2013 Masters. His fifth place behind Jason Dufner in last year's PGA at Oak Hill was just one of nine top 10s in his last 15 Majors. A winner at Colonial in May, he'll relish the chance to fight back after being knocked off the top of the world by McIlroy last Sunday.
4. Martin Kaymer
The German looked as much a world-beater this summer as his national football team as he raced to a stunning eight-stroke victory at the US Open just weeks after a dramatic sudden-death success in golf's richest event, The Players Championship at Sawgrass. Still just 29, Kaymer won his first Major at the 2010 US PGA in Whistling Straits and has recovered from back and shoulder injuries that struck after Pinehurst.
5. Sergio Garcia
Though he has finished two shots behind McIlroy twice in three weeks, Garcia (34) once again looks a threat in the Major championship arena after learning how to focus on the positive, even in defeat. He made a decent run at the Claret Jug on Sunday in Hoylake until taking two to get out of a greenside bunker at 15. After they lunched together at Firestone, McIlroy snaffled the Spaniard's three-stroke overnight lead for dessert. Yet Garcia's time must come soon at the Majors.