Golfnutter: Rory McIlroy – a new era begins

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The PGA Championship, desperate to lose its tag as the world’s “least-regarded major” billed this event with all the hyperbole its PR people could muster.  But in their wildest dreams, the PGA of America would never have envisaged, let alone dreamt about the drama that unfolded on the tournament’s back nine, on that event-filled Sunday evening.  Yes, Sunday evening.

Due to a rain delay, the final paring of McIlroy and Wiesberger began their final round at 4.26 pm.  McIlroy, who needed to par the last to win, hit his second on the par-5 18th into a bunker some 30 yards from the pin.  In fast-fading light that must have had an effect on his depth perception, he did what he had to do; just get the ball on to the green.  His sand-shot came up 34 feet short, from where he lagged a putt close enough to ensure victory.  He tapped in the winning putt at 8.43 pm – some 13 minutes after sunset.  But this was only part of the drama.

The final day’s leader board had a quality about it that only rarely comes together in such numbers.  Golf’s majors have had their classic battles, such as with Hogan and Snead, Palmer and Nicklaus, and in the same event on the same course some 14 years ago, the famous play-off involving Tiger Woods and Bob May.  But this Sunday the final stretch was a contest between a galaxy of stars.  From McIlroy to Mickelson, to Stenson, to Fowler, to Els, to Furyk, to Louis Oosthuizen, this was set up for an epic final, and so it proved.

Starting the final round with a one-shot lead, McIlroy struggled for rhythm on the first six holes – dropping two shots to par.  In the interim, Mickelson, Stenson and Fowler had got off to fliers.  Stenson took just 30 shots to play the outward nine.  Mickelson and Fowler also played the front nine superbly.  By the time McIlroy stood on the long par-five tenth, he was in a tie for fourth – three shots behind the charging Stenson, Mickelson and Fowler.

Then McIlroy, showing a level of resolve hitherto unseen, dug deep and played the shot of the tournament.  After bombing his tee-shot about 340 yards – there was minimal run – he was faced with a 285-yard shot to the pin.  No-one in the entire field had made it to the 10th in two.  Along with everyone else, McIlroy had previously chosen to lay-up.  Not this time.  Not when he’s three shots behind and chasing.

The resulting three-wood sent the ball low and slightly left, with enough forward momentum to run up to the green and carry on – to pin-high, seven feet.  He nailed the putt for eagle.  The crowd went wild.  Immediately in front of McIlroy’s group was Mickelson and Fowler.  Mickelson answered by birdieing his next hole.  McIlroy now trailed by two.

The back nine at Valhalla is by far the hardest.  Holes 12 through 17 contain the five most difficult holes in the tournament.  McIlroy played them in 2-under par whereas those he was chasing couldn’t match par.  By the time he stood on the 18th tee, McIlroy enjoyed a two-shot lead – an astounding turnaround from the position he was in when standing on the 10th tee.

Both Mickelson and Stenson shot 66.  Fowler shot 68.  McIlroy, after leading by one at the start of the day, found himself three off the lead and facing the best golfers in the game.  That he turned it around is a tribute to his new-found ability to focus, to grind, to make a score when not playing his best, to be patient in the knowledge his tempo will return.  And return it did.

Neither Stenson, Fowler nor Mickelson lost this major; McIlroy won it.  That he can win coming from behind, against the game’s heavyweights in tough conditions, says more about his ability to win than anything previously.  The manner with which he brought about this win makes this his most meaningful result to date.

ESPN’s golf correspondent, still getting over the drama, wrote; McIlroy has single-handedly freed the sport from inertia.  He isn’t just collecting trophies; he’s making golf relevant again.  This was a PGA Championship – and a winner – that should make you a believer in the future of the game.

Perhaps as equally telling as McIlroy winning his third tournament in a row, and second major in succession, is the fact that this tournament proved even without Tiger Woods, golf can and does provide drama and quality that becomes compelling viewing.  This was further endorsed by CBS ratings survey showing the final round US viewing numbers were up 36 per cent from last year, and the most PGA Championship viewers since 2009.

Two observations about a lack of professionalism, from people who should know better: at the start of McIlroy’s third round on Saturday, the official starter introduced him to the gallery as “Rory McIlroy, from Ireland.”  He did not make the same insulting error on Sunday.

Immediately after McIlroy hit the shot that has since become defined as the shot of the tournament, CBS golf announcer and, it often appears, the most knowledgeable person on all matters: Sir Nick Faldo, shouted excitedly “He’s necked it.”  This comment followed many observations as to what was wrong with Rory, why he wasn’t firing, etc.  What golf’s most knowledgeable knight subsequently muttered into the microphone, as the ball sped all of 285 yards, to rest within seven feet of the hole, was hard to discern.  But he had just described the best shot played over the course of all four days as “necked” meaning it was struck near the neck of the club head, which would normally result in a pull, straight left into rough.  He will live with that faux-par for some time – his fellow announcers should see to that.

A fabulous action-packed event played by golfers at the top of their game.  The quality of golf, the event itself, the players involved and the fast-fading light made this a drama no script-writer would have dared contemplate.

The Rory Era has indeed arrived.

Golfnutter