LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Anyone could see Rory McIlroy had the gifts to be the next big thing in golf.
His victory in the PGA Championship was more about grit.
That might be more impressive than some of the numbers associated with his latest major. McIlroy has won his four majors at a combined 62-under par. The only other players in the last century to win four majors 25 or younger were Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones. It had been six years since anyone won two straight majors (Padraig Harrington) or three straight tournaments (Woods).
“It’s beginning to look a little Tigeresque, I supposed,” Graeme McDowell said. “I said to the boys at The Open I didn’t think we were going to see the new Tiger era just yet. I’m not eating my words, but I’m certainly starting to chew on them right now.”
The comparisons with Woods are becoming inevitable.
Even though the circumstances were slightly different, McIlroy had his own Valhalla moment. The last two PGA Championships at Valhalla were all about guts.
Fourteen years ago, Woods was on the verge of going three shots down with three holes to play when a mixture of determination and good fortune turned everything around. Woods made a 12-foot par putt and Bob May missed a 4-footer for birdie. Woods caught him two holes later with a birdie set up by a 335-yard drive on a hole where he couldn’t afford to miss. He forced a playoff with a 6-foot birdie on the last hole that Woods still calls the most important putt he ever made.
That was three majors in a row for Woods, and he went on to an unprecedented sweep of the majors.
McIlroy is not there yet. The next step is Augusta National – the Masters starts in 241 days – and a shot at his third straight major and the career Grand Slam. What he carries with him is the belief that he can battle back just as easily as he can blow away a field.
Boy Wonder can make the game look easy, even in the majors. He was eight shots ahead at Congressional going into the last day and he set the U.S. Open scoring record on a rain-softened course in 2011. He was three ahead at Kiawah Island going into the last round of the 2012 PGA Championship when he won by a record eight shots. And he had a six-shot lead on Sunday when he polished off that wire-to-wire win at the British Open last month.
So he was in foreign territory standing in the 10th fairway at Valhalla on Sunday. He watched from 281 yards away as Rickie Fowler poured in a 30-foot birdie putt that put McIlroy three shots behind with nine holes to play.
“I knew I needed to do something, and I needed to play catch-up and I needed to make some birdies,” McIlroy said. “That 10th hole was huge.”
The 3-wood he struck – a little lower than he planned, a little more left than he wanted – rolled up the left side of the fairway and onto the green just 7 feet left of the cup, and the eagle putt is what got him back in the game.
McIlroy still had plenty of work left. He made a 10-foot birdie on the 13th hole to share the lead. He went back ahead by one shot when the A-list of challengers – Fowler, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson – all made a mistakes. And then he sealed it with a 9-iron from a fairway bunker on the 17th hole to 10 feet.
That gave him a two-shot lead. The final round as so close that it was the largest lead by anyone all day.
This was the most satisfying major for McIlroy because he had to work the hardest. The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland was developing a stereotype as a player who would only win in soft conditions with a comfortable lead.
There was nothing comfortable about the final two hours at Valhalla. One mistake could be the difference between winning the losing.
Mickelson found that out with a chip that flew too strong at the cup at the 16th hole and led to bogey. Fowler missed the 14th green badly to the right and made bogey. Stenson missed a 3-foot par putt on the same hole and never caught up. McIlroy didn’t flinch and wound up winning by one shot over Mickelson.
Why was it so satisfying?
“It means that I know that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind,” McIlroy said. “Phil Mickelson, the second-best player in this era, to be able to beat him on the back nine Sunday, it’s great to have in the memory bank and great to have going forward.”
McIlroy posted a photo on Twitter in the early hours of Monday showing him holding the claret jug and the Wanamaker Trophy from the last two majors. “The summer of 2014 is one I’ll never forget!!” he wrote.
Maybe it will get even better. Whatever happens, McIlroy should now be equipped for just about anything.