LOUISVILLE–In his three previous major golf wins Rory McIlroy had simply vanquished his opponents and squeezed the life out of any real excitement. Not so this time at the year’s final major championship—the PGA at Vahalla in Louisville.
McIlroy started the final round with a one stroke lead and his play over the first six holes was clearly inefficient—bogeying two holes and allowing a cast of players to surge to the front. At one point the world ‘s number player trailed by as many three strokes with several players all making major moves in contending.
The challengers came from all directions. In the penultimate pairing five-time major winner Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler—the most consistent player in the majors this year. Along with Swede Henrik Stenson who made an early statement firing a five-under-par on the onward nine—it seemed the 25-year-old Northern Irishman would be relegated to supporting role in the festivities.
The back nine—where majors are often won—is where McIlroy displayed top tier shotmaking as his rivals were unable to continue the torrid starts they had each made in the outward half of holes. Stenson and Fowler would both limp home with 36 on the final holes—Mickelson could only best that number by one stroke and earning him a solo finish in the runner-up slot. Lefty will look back and see a driver that has failed to produce when called upon in critical moments.
The key for Rory was unleashing his splendid marriage of power and accuracy. At the start of the homeward journey McIlroy used the par-5 10th as a springboard to victory. After delivering another of his 300+ yard drives which spliced the fairway—he followed-up with a brilliant fairway metal from roughly 260 yards to no more than seven feet for eagle. In just one hole McIlroy served a lighting wake-up call to himself and to all those seeking to take home the Wannamaker Trophy.
Throughout the back nine McIlroy had the easier time of it. A birdie at the short 13th propelled him into a tie for the lead and after displaying vintage execution with drives of 314 and 331 yards respectively at the 15th and 16th holes—both resulting in near miss birdie opportunities—the triumph came from an approach from a fairway bunker at the par-4 17th to 15 feet. McIlroy was not about to let another opportunity escape him and he buried the putt and with that the hopes of anyone thinking about winning this year’s PGA. His final nine holes were played in 32 strokes—four-under-par—and with no blemishes whatsoever.
A major rain delay interrupted the final round proceedings and it appeared play might have to spillover to Monday because of the late start. At 8:43 PM play concluded with McIlroy earning his second PGA title and 4th major win. Incredibly, the win marked three consecutive wins for Rory—winning The Open this past July at Hoylake and just last week with the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.
It’s been said that having the lead entering the final 18 holes—losing it during the round and then regaining it—is the most demanding set of circumstances any player can face. McIlroy showed inner calm to a start that likely would have derailed nearly any other player.
The fight from the other contenders was noble and demonstrated real grit. Although Vahalla was soft from heavy rains—the quality of the play from the outset of the final round was the best displayed among all of this year’s major events. Fowler and Mickelson each played well in the early stages and at one point it appeared either could likely prevail. Sloppy play at critical times impacted both. For Fowler the lesson of his play during this year’s majors could prove most useful in the years ahead. For Phil the inability to hit fairways when needed down the stretch proved his demise. Bogeying the 70th hole of the event—the 16th—came from another missed fairway and the inability to make a par putt after pitching to within 10 feet. A resourceful pitch from the front of the 18th green was almost holed but, in the end, was too little too late.
McIlroy has cemented himself at the top of the pecking order in professional golf. There is Rory—and then the others. This victory was even more special—having to shake off the cobwebs from a hideous start and showing real tenacity in fighting off rivals intent on beating him makes victory at Vahalla even more special. His 4th major win only adds much to the excitement that will come with his play at next year’s Masters at Augusta—when he seeks to complete the career Grand Slam. Given what he has shown to date—it is hard to fathom how a green jacket on his shoulders is far away from happening.
Rory has sent a very clear statement a new era in golf is upon us. Kudos to Mickelson, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk for fine play at Vahalla this week but there moments are towards the sunset stage now. The page is now turning to a younger talented set of players with McIlroy the leader. The PGA is often derided as being the lesser of the majors but this year’s event provided riveting drama with a stellar leaderboard that never lacked for excitement. Rory McIlroy—like Tiger Woods who won here at Vahalla in the 2000 PGA at age 24—has now answered emphatically that golf’s immediate future resides with him. The king has the crown—the question is can anyone challenge him? Thus far—Rory is the only story.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.