Even in darkness, Rory McIlroy commanded the spotlight at the 2014 PGA Championship.
In a hectic, weather-delayed finish more reminiscent of a Sunday night social at the local club than a major championship, McIlroy played through runner-ups Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler on the 18th hole at Valhalla to beat the final faint traces of daylight in a one-stroke victory.
With a third consecutive win – two majors sandwiching a World Golf Championship event that reclaimed world No. 1 status – McIlroy signaled a new era as golf’s most dominant player.
“I said I thought winning the Open Championship a few weeks ago had sort of put me on a higher level in this game,” McIlroy said at Valhalla. “But then to win a fourth major here, to be one behind Phil (Mickelson), one behind Seve (Ballesteros), level with Ernie (Els), level with Raymond Floyd – I mean, I never thought I’d get this far at 25 years of age.
“It’s something that I’m just going to have to come to terms with in a way. I mean, I was happy being a two‑time major winner coming into this year, and all of a sudden I’m a four‑time major champion and going for the career Grand Slam at Augusta in 292 days, 291 days or whatever it is – not that I’m counting.”
McIlroy not only became the 18th golfer to win multiple majors in the same season, he joined Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and Young Tom Morris as the only golfers to win four majors by age 25. He fittingly won his second consecutive major on the same Valhalla course where Woods outdueled Bob May in 2000 to claim the third leg of his “Tiger Slam.”
While it may be premature to start counting down McIlroy’s pursuit of Nicklaus and Woods in majors won, it’s apparent that he’s golf’s new man to beat. McIlroy is smart enough not to get too far ahead of himself.
“I think I’ve got to take it one small step at a time,” he said. “I think the two next realistic goals are the career Grand Slam (at Augusta), and trying to become the most successful European player ever. So Nick Faldo, the most successful European ever in the modern era, has six (majors). Seve has five.
“And hopefully, when I achieve those, I can start to think about other things. But right now, that’s what my focus is.”
This time, McIlroy had to rally to win a dramatic four-man battle down the second nine with Mickelson, Fowler and Henrik Stenson.
Starting the final round with a one-shot lead over Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, McIlroy made the turn staring at a three-shot deficit to Fowler and a host of quality threats. He responded with his best clutch golf, drilling a 3-wood to 7 feet for eagle on No. 10. He then caught and passed the leaders with a pair of fist-pumping birdies on 13 and 17. Ultimately it was a 9-iron from a fairway bunker on the 17th that led to his last birdie and a two-shot cushion going to the last hole.
The ending was surreal – if a little unbecoming of a major. Both Mickelson and Fowler needed eagles on the reachable par-5 18th to catch McIlroy, but agreed to let the leader tee off immediately after they did to allow the chance to finish before complete darkness. It was a classy show of sportsmanship under tense circumstances.
However, Mickelson and Fowler preferred to finish while there was still barely enough light to read the green, but the PGA usurped their etiquette rights and made them wait for McIlroy to hit his approach to the green as well. Mickelson barely missed his eagle chip and Fowler three-putted.
McIlroy saved par out of the bunker, two-putting from 60 feet to hoist his second Wanamaker Trophy in the dark.
“He’s better than everyone else right now,” Mickelson said.
McIlroy even surpassed his own expectations with a summer that included four victories in premier events, including the European Tour’s flagship championship at Wentworth.
“Amazing. Incredible. I’m not sure I’ll ever have another summer like this,” he said. “I have to enjoy what I’ve just done.”