LOUISVILLE, Ky. — How the PGA of America happened to end up with the luck of the Irish is a mystery, but the proprietor of the golf season’s last major championship survived a flood and defied sunset Sunday.
And in the end --- accompanied by the flash of cameras peering into the gloaming --- it was able to pull Rory McIlroy out of a hat for a satisfactory big finish.
The people’s choice, the 25-year-old Irishman was not, but the fellow who was, Phil Mickelson, obligingly bogeyed the 16th hole to fall out of a share of the lead, then literally stepped aside after hitting his tee shot on the 18th hole to let McIlroy, in the final group, play the hole simultaneously.
It was a fairly outrageous way to end a major, robbing both Mickelson and his playing partner, Rickie Fowler, of their moments of undivided love at the 18th green.
But that’s life in the world ruled by television, where the rightsholders want maximum prime time and common sense scheduling that might allow a little leeway in the event of a weather system everyone knew was coming, is rarely a consideration.
And anyway, there is no cavilling at the quality of the champ, who beat Mickelson by a single stroke, and Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson by two.
With a two-putt par from 35 feet, he did well to be able to see the flagstick, and left himself only a tap-in for his second major championship in a row, following the Open at Royal Liverpool, and the fourth of his still-young and meteoric career.
“It was a classy move for those guys to let us come up, because they didn’t have to,” McIlroy said. “They could have let us stand there and wait in darkness and make it a little more difficult.
“It was true sportsmanship and shows the great character of those two guys.”
The curse of Chief Leatherlips, which regularly dumps buckets of rain down on the Memorial Tournament at Jack Nicklaus’s hometown course, Muirfield Village, had nothing on the three major downpours that hit the Golden Bear-designed Valhalla Golf Club in the first half of the day Sunday.
When the most torrential of the storms struck, and the greens were lakes and the fairways rivers, play was suspended mid-day for an hour and 51 minutes, pushing the final pairing’s tee time back to 4:24.
There was virtually no chance they would get it finished Sunday night, but somehow they did, on the stroke of sunset.
From the start of the final round, the pursuing pack was always going to need McIlroy’s co-operation to make a game of, and after Mickelson birdied the first and third, McIlroy obliged.
He opened the door with a three-putt at the third hole, at which point it was a five-way tie for the lead that also included Fowler, Brend Wiesberger and Stenson.
“I started the round very tentatively. I just didn’t really have it,” McIlroy said. “Sort of just trying to get through the first few holes with pars while everyone else was attacking, so that wasn’t good.”
Fowler took the outright lead for a while, then Stenson, then Mickelson and McIlroy looked to be falling out of it, slogging along with pars. He was two-over after six holes, and three strokes behind Fowler.
But throughout his hellacious run of sub-par rounds at Open Championship, Bridgestone Invitational and here, McIlroy has had a penchant for standing on the gas pedal in the waning holes, building cushions or, in this case, making the difference between losing and winning.
He played the back nine five-under-par Sunday, kick-started by an eagle at the 10th, and made enough noise to finally rattle the challengers, each of whom had played some spectacular golf to get in the game.
Mickelson graciously said he wasn’t upset about having to let McIlroy’s group play up on No. 18.
“It's not a big deal either way, they have a chance to finish. It was no big deal,” he said.
“It was a fun day for me to make some birdies and move up early so that I had a good chance on the back nine. I'm disappointed in the outcome. I thought that had I been able to finish those last, five, six holes strong, could have totally flipped the way I look at this year.”
He very nearly holed a chip for eagle on the 18th.
“It was right on line and then just broke off at the end. You know, gave it a good chance, but that's not the opportunity on 18 that I'm looking for. I don't like being two back having to hole a shot. I need to be close. That bogey on 16 hurt.”
Fowler, who tied for third with Stenson, two shots back of McIlroy, joined Tiger Woods (2000, 2005) and Nicklaus (1971, 1973) as the only players to finish in the top 5 in all four major championships in a season in the modern era. He was less excited about the way the tournament finished.
“I was cool with (McIlroy and Wiesberger) hitting the tee shot. We weren’t expecting the approach shots,” Fowler said. “But it is what it is. Obviously Rory is a deserving champion. Best player in the world, hands down. We’ll see if we can sneak one away from him at some point.”
McIlroy, who shot rounds of 66-67-67-68 here, has led after 54 holes in each of his four major wins, and the only blemish on his record came at the 2011 Masters. And Augusta is where he’ll have a chance next April to complete his career Grand Slam.
He has played his last 12 PGA Championship rounds in 32-under par and is 48-under in his run of three-in-a-row tournament wins.
Asked how his summer’s going so far, McIlroy just smiled.
“Summer’s going all right, thanks,” he said.
Graeme McDowell put into words what the golf world is witnessing with his young countryman.
“It’s beginning to look a little Tiger-esque I suppose,” said the 2010 U.S. Open champion. “I said to the boys at The Open, I didn't think we were going to see the new Tiger era, as in someone creating their own kind of Tiger-esque era, just yet. I'm not eating my words but I'm certainly starting to chew on them right now.
“When the kid is playing well, it’s pretty special stuff.”
It’s still no sure thing that the new king of golf has been crowned, but McIlroy’s potential to win more majors seems pretty high.
McDowell said he thought McIlroy could win eight, as long as he stays healthy and motivated. Already his four majors at age 25 is a feat only Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have achieved.
“I try and put all this talk aside every time it comes up,” McIlroy said. “But Tiger and Jack are two of the most successful players in our sport of all time. I’m on a nice track at the minute, a nice path. I’ve got a long way to go, but to be in their company at this age is very special.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever have another summer like this. I’ve got a lot of golf left to play this year, but I have to enjoy what I’ve just done.”
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