Rory McIlroy seals dramatic US PGA Championship win
World number one keeps his cool in Valhalla deluge
RORY McILROY has thrilled the world with glory golf this summer but at Valhalla yesterday the Holywood hero completed an historic hat-trick victories at the US PGA Championship with a display of sheer guts as well as genius.
McIlroy appeared to wallow in cloying humidity on Valhalla’s front nine as California’s sunshine boy Rickie Fowler and his hugely-popular ‘big brother in golf’, Phil Mickelson turned a rain-drenched final day into a riotously noisy mud lark.
But there was no stopping the 25-year-old Holywood hero down the stretch as he pipped Mickelson by one stroke to wrap up his second Major title in four weeks, with a first World Championship win at Firestone last Sunday week into the bargain.
As McIlroy clasped the Wanamaker Trophy for the second time in three years, it really did feel as if he has brought us to the dawn of the new ‘Rory Era’ in golf.
In a comic moment in pitch-darkness Ted Bishop nearly dropped the huge cup during the presentation but, McIlroy pulled off yet another great save.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I was going to have a summer like this,” said the delighted McIlroy after a phenomenal climax to the tournament.
After leading golf’s finest a merry dance in the Open at Hoylake last month and skipping to No 1 with his first World Golf Championship victory at Firestone on Sunday week, McIlroy appeared to lose a near-imperceptible edge on his outward half yesterday
Not that the 25-year-old played badly. Yet after three days in which he relied on a Tigerish fighting spirit and inspired putting to cover the occasional crack caused by inevitable mental fatigue, the spark simply appeared to flicker out for McIlroy.
Though he did not appear discommoded in the least by a 110 minutes delay to proceedings after the course was flooded by a veritable monsoon at lunchtime, McIlroy found it difficult to gather any momentum as play slowed to a snail’s pace in the soup-thick air.
After opening with a couple of safe pars, McIlroy dropped a clanger with only his second three-putt of the week at the par three third after leaving a 33-footer six feet short.
Suddenly his one shot overnight lead was gone. American icon Mickelson set the galleries roaring by holing putts of 30 feet at one and 11 feet at three for a couple of birdies that sent him surfing on a huge wave of sound to the top of the leaderboard.
Then Fowler got in on the act. After hitting driving into the raging torrent left of the fairway on his way to a bogey five, the likeable 25-year-old joined Mickelson at the top with a sparkling necklace of birdies at the third, fourth and fifth.
Sociologists could spent a career studying the demographic of the massive crowds as the youngsters rooted noisily for Fowler, while 44-year-old Mickelson brought their parents screaming to their feet.
As we discovered at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago; here in Louisville in 2008 and again yesterday, the gloriously uninhibited golf galleries in the US are a deafening joy.
Up ahead, Sweden’s Fedex Cup and Race to Dubai champion Henrik Stenson thrust himself forcefully into a share of the lead as he played the soggy and receptive front nine in five-under 30 strokes.
This feat also was achieved by Ernie Els as he romped to a final round 65 and a share of sixth place on 11-under par. Jim Furyk also flourished, posting a 66 for a top-five finish on 12-under, a remarkable performance which should have sited in conditions that ideally suited golf’s boomers, not cerebral 44-year-olds.
It seemed as if birdies were there to be taken at every turn but McIlroy and Wiesberger in the final two-ball managed just one between them on the front nine.
Crucially, it was landed by McIlroy at the par five seventh. Wallowing three behind Fowler after failing to get up and down from a greenside bunker at the punishing sixth, the six foot putt the Ulsterman missed here was symptomatic of his efforts on the opening half-dozen holes.
Having to sit for 20 minutes on a bench at the back of the tee waiting to play this hole must have been hugely frustrating for a player aching to kick-start his day, though McIlroy did well not to show it.
One feared for his prospects of making any headway on the seventh either after his approach leaked right and landed on the grass bank over the back of a greenside bunker.
Mercifully, McIlroy got a beautiful lie, his ball sitting-up nicely on a tuft of grass but that doesn’t fully explain the ingenious lob shot he played with the wide-open blade o his lob-wedge to within three feet for the birdie which reignited his championship.
Still, at 12-under through the turn, the Irishman was three behind Fowler and trailing Mickelson by two after the two Americans birdied the par five 10th
If McIlroy had appeared to be reeling on the ropes, he came out swinging on the back nine, throwing a real haymaker at 10. After making bouble-bogey here on Thursday, when he hit his 3-wood out of bounds off the fairway, people visibly grimaced as he drew the same club yesterday.
This time, however, McIlroy came up with a stroke of pure genius. He smashed a low shot which hopped, skipped and scuttled up onto the green like a radar-guided hare before coming to rest eight feet from the hole. Eagle! Game on for McIlroy!
The air-punch Mcilroy threw as he holed a the nine-footer for birdie at 13 that propelled him back into a share of the lead (with Mickelson) for the first time since the fifth would have decked any heavyweight.
At this stage, Stenson’s putter suddenly went cold. He three putted from ludicrously shot distance for a bogey at 14, where Fowler hit his tee shot into the creek on the right of this demanding uphill par three.
Mickelson and McIlroy were neck-and-neck on 15-under and heading for a finish as thrilling as anything seen at nearby Churchill Downs with three holes remaining and dusk threatening.
Mickelson lipped-out with a chip from the greenside rough for birdie then missed the one back to let McIlroy sneak in front and snatch back the mantle of favourite. Yet this one was going to go all the way.
Of course, they also were involved in a dramatic race to beat the dying of the light after a rip-roaring Sunday that will live for long in the memory.
When McIlroy holed an 11 foot putt for birdie in the glooming at 17 to surge two clear of Fowler, Mickelson and Stenson (who’d already finished on 14-under) the race was all-but run.
Officials gave the green light was given for McIlroy to hit his tee shot at the par five 18th as Mickelson and Fowler walked after their balls. His drive courted with the stream on the right but somehow stopped on a steep slope softened by rain.
After Mickelson and Fowler played their shots in, McIlroy cracked his 6-iron into a front greenside bunker, 35 yards from the hole. Good grief, a bolt of lightning then crashed down behind the clubhouse.
Mickelson, unhappy that officials gave the green light McIlroy and Wiesberger to play their second shots, just missed his chip to tie the lead. He wrapped and wrapped up his tournament on 15-under after a closing 66. Fowler missed a six foot birdie putt in the darkness for a 68.
A tie for third earned Fowler the rare honour of finishing in the top-five in all four Majors this year. So McIlroy had two putts from 30 feet for a 68 and a one stroke victory on 16-under. That was all he needed after lighting up the darkness with his brilliance.
Having joined Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in the exclusive company of golfers to win three different Majors before their 26th birthday by lifting the Claret Jug at Hoylake, McIlroy now has become the third-youngest player to win four Majors.
Victory in Louisville places him just ahead of Seve Ballesteros behind Woods and Nicklaus.
Graeme McDowell, who’d just driven his ball into deep rough on the 17th hole of his final round when called ashore, has been so impressed by McIlroy over the past four weeks, he’s rapidly revising his opinion about his young fellow Ulsterman’s prospects of starting a new ‘Rory Era’ in the sport.
“I said to you guys at The Open I didn’t think we were ready to start talking about the next Tiger,” said the Portrush man. “If he was to win this, I’d sort of start chewing on my words a little. Listen, when Rory’s at his best, there’s no one can live with him because he has the all round game.
“Putting used be his Achilles heel but it’s not anymore,” added McDowell. “His short game’s phenomenal, always has been. His equipment change, his driver wasn’t the weapon it was but now it is again. He’s got that sorted out, his driver is back to being a serious weapon
“Attitude-wise, he’s obviously in a very good place.”
McDowell quite rightly castigated the PGA of America for failing to allow preferred lies given heavy rain overnight and the forecast for more. “It was unplayable this morning. Balls should have been played-up, simple as!”
The Portrush man made bogey at 17 but, after a nice two-putt birdie at 18, to wrap-up his tournament with a two-under par 69 to tie with Shane Lowry on one-under, on the fringes of the top-50.
Lowry finished just as the first drops were beginning to fall, which is ironic when one considers how severely his prospects were undermined when he was forced to commence his second round last Friday in conditions just as bad as yesterday, as 74 eventually wiping out all the good work he’d done with an impressive opening 68.
After clinching a top-10 finish at the Open with a fine closing 65 at Hoylake, Lowry signed for a sweet 67 yesterday that served his honour well but once again wondering what might have been after another poor draw at the Majors was compounded by official bungling. His day will come.