McIlroy claims 2nd straight major at PGA
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As Rickie Fowler's lengthy birdie putt curled in on the left edge of the 10th hole Sunday, the perennial groomsman of 2014 finally seemed to be inching his way to finally walking down the aisle himself.
Looking to make the Wanamaker Trophy his first bride, the seemingly never-ready-to-settle-down Fowler grabbed a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson with eight holes to play at the 96th PGA Championship.
But as any soon-to-be groom always fears, in entered the Wanamaker's long, lost love, with feelings immediately rekindled in the form of a gutsy eagle on that same 10th hole that simply won the trophy's heart back.
Out with the new, in with the old.
Well, that's if you can call 25-year-old Rory McIlroy old. But the Ulsterman was forced to come from behind to win a major title for the first time Sunday, showcasing resolve in a 3-under 68 for a one-shot victory that quieted detractors who felt he couldn't win unless he had a big lead come Sunday.
This McIlroy is all grown up, and on a roll, having won three consecutive tournaments, including the Open Championship and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
"To win it in this fashion and this style, it means a lot. It means that I know that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind," said McIlroy after finishing at 16 under, one better than Phil Mickelson on a day that featured a 100-minute weather delay because of torrential rains in the early afternoon.
"I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a major and come out on top."
PHOTOS: 2014 PGA Championship, Sunday
Check out images from the final round of the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club.
That wasn't always a guarantee Sunday, as McIlroy was forced to rally because of uncharacteristic sloppy play over his first six holes.
At the par-3 third hole, a solid tee ball left him 25 feet for birdie. Three putts later, his one-shot lead over the field dissipated, creating an eventual five-way tie for the lead with Henrik Stenson, Bernd Wiesberger, Mickelson and Fowler. No more runaway Rory; this was a hold-onto-your-pants moment for the young Ulsterman.
The pressure mounted a bit with another bogey at No. 6, pushing him two back of Fowler, who had just run off three consecutive birdies on Nos. 3-5. And when he stood in the 10th fairway watching Fowler drain his birdie putt, McIlroy had a three-shot deficit and only nine holes to do something about it.
"I was fully aware of what was going on out there," said McIlroy, who ties Ernie Els and Raymond Floyd with four major titles, and is one away from tying Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros. "I knew I needed to do something and I need to play catch-up and I needed to make some birdies, and again, the 10th hole was huge. But … I was paying attention."
Instead of laying up as Fowler lined up that putt, McIlroy chose to wait in the 10th fairway. No one had reached the 590-yard behemoth in two Sunday, but McIlroy had to make something happen. With fairway metal – the club that he had used Thursday in pumping his second ball on 10 out of bounds – McIlroy laced a ball up the left side of the fairway. And despite the wet conditions, the ball continued to bound toward the green, rolling out to 8 feet left of the pin. He put the eagle putt in the heart of the cup. Just the 'kick-start' that McIlroy was searching for.
Deficit? Down to one. Momentum? Back to the Ulsterman.
With Fowler and Mickelson both at 15 under after Mickelson birdied No. 11, McIlroy posted consecutive pars to stay within one. And then he struck again, holing another 8-footer on the short par-4 13th to jump back into a tie for the lead, a spot that he wouldn't relinquish the rest of the day.
"This is probably the one that hurts the most for me with the majors this year," said Fowler, who becomes the third player in history to record top-5s in all four majors in a calendar year – joining Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, who each did it twice.
"The first three were a lot of fun and obviously to be in great positions and to get great finishes. This one I felt like I could go out today and win it."
Fowler had his chances, as did Mickelson, over the final four holes, but couldn't find the magic necessary to take down the world's hottest golfer.
Fowler failed to birdie No. 15 despite having only 123 yards in after a monster drive. A scrambling par at 16 after piping his drive into the 15th fairway kept him in it, but then failed to get his approach close on 17 despite another huge drive.
Mickelson scuffled in similar fashion, with his bogey coming at 16 after he found the rough off the tee and with his approach. He gave fans a thrill by nearly holing the chip shot from just beyond the front greenside bunker, but it hit the cup and skirted about 8 feet past. He missed the putt to break a 21-hole bogey-free streak, falling back to 14 under and giving McIlroy the outright lead.
"I botched it. I flew it way too far," said Mickelson. "It had a chance. I needed a lucky break there. If it one-hops in like it almost did, it caught the lip, it would have been a two-shot swing."
The dagger came 20 minutes later as the players were fighting darkness and the ability to read their lines on the greens.
McIlroy seemed to open the door to a late bogey after he sent his drive into a fairway bunker on 17, setting up a difficult shot to the far-left pin. But he liked his approach immediately, jogging out of the bunker to watch it as it stuck 10 feet right of the pin. He calmly drained the putt, showcased a big fist pump and headed to the par-5 18th with a two-shot lead.
That's when things got weird – about the only blemish in what otherwise was one of the most exciting major Sundays in recent memory.
It seemed as though the only way to stop McIlroy's late momentum might be officials calling off play and forcing the final two groups to return Monday morning to complete the last hole, as the PGA of America even announced that play would start at 9 a.m. on Monday if the players couldn't finish.
Instead, a sudden push by officials to hurry the final groups through seemed to take precedence. After Fowler and Mickelson teed off into what was nearly darkness on 18, they were asked to let McIlroy and Wiesberger hit as well. The penultimate group complied, knowing that everyone wanted to finish and teeing off would allow the final group to do so, even if the horn sounded.
After McIlroy narrowly escaped finding water on the right, he watched both Mickelson and Fowler go for it in two, the former just short and latter on the green 45 feet away. As Mickelson and Fowler walked to the green, they were again asked to stop as the final group also hit its approach shots, stalling play and not allowing either one to apply any pressure before McIlroy's second shot.
"We weren't expecting the approach shots," said Fowler. "So however you look at it, it is what it is."
It turns out, it didn't matter much after Fowler three-putted for par to finish two back and Mickelson chipped to about a foot before a birdie gave him his first top 10 of the season.
A bizarre conclusion to what was otherwise another week to celebrate McIlroy's growing love affair with major championships.
"(McIlroy is) better than everyone else right now," said Mickelson. "Yeah, he's good.