When the scrutiny mounted, Rory McIlroy once again shut up his critics with a bounceback marathon performance on Sunday at the PGA Championship and thrust his name back in the conversation with the game’s all-time elite.
“I was a little frustrated with how I was playing earlier on in the year, but a few people in this room were probably pushing panic buttons for no reason,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think I could have answered it in any better way. And yeah, to be honest, it did motivate me. I did want to go out there and prove a few people wrong. That’s what I did.”
What McIlroy did was make like Usain Bolt and pull away from the competition like it was standing still. He made eight birdies in his last 22 holes of a 27-hole Sunday marathon at the Ocean Course.
His 67-66 weekend finish turned a two-shot deficit to multiple major winners Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh into an eight-stroke victory.
“He was just better than everybody and he made it clear out there,” said Carl Pettersson, who tied for third in the final threesome with McIlroy.
Unlike the U.S. Open at Congressional last year when he raced to the early lead and went wire-to-wire to win by the same margin, McIlroy displayed a finishing kick on Kiawah’s Ocean Course that nobody else could keep up with. Twice Ian Poulter drew within two strokes of him Sunday but McIlroy never flinched under pressure and went forward while everyone else fell back.
“That’s two tournaments he’s lapped the field,” Padraig Harrington said. “The only person that’s ever done that in majors in my time has been, you know, Tiger. He’s done it twice now. That’s quite impressive, isn’t it?”
All the growing doubts about McIlroy’s mettle melted into another victory that inspires associations with greatness and vaulted him back to No. 1 in the world.
He broke Jack Nicklaus’ all-time victory margin in the PGA, draining a 15-foot birdie putt in the tumult of the fan-embraced 72nd hole.
He became the youngest golfer (23 years, 100 days) since Seve Ballesteros (23 years, 4 days) to win his second career major. Nicklaus was only 24 days younger than McIlroy when he won his second.
He beat Woods to the multiple mark, doing it 125 days younger and needing only 17 career major starts to Woods’ 18.
He’s only the 13th golfer in history to win majors in consecutive seasons, the first since Harrington in 2007-08.
McIlroy – beaming uncontrollably next to the Wanamaker Trophy – certainly is comfortable in the superstar role.
“To sit up here and see this trophy and call myself a multiple major champion … I’m very privileged to join such an elite list of names.”
McIlroy was comfortable all week hanging out on Kiawah Island’s beaches every evening. He sensed something special the moment he arrived.
Then when foul weather – which detonated several other major chances for him – arrived in the form of the toughest day in PGA history on Friday, McIlroy held it together with a tough 75 to keep him in the mix.
“It had all the signs of a round that could get away from you,” he said. “That was definitely a line that I held together well and that 75 could easily have been a 77 or 78.”
Then he chuckled.
“Still wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Skeptics questioned whether his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki was distracting his work ethic or that a string of missed cuts and poor major showings was systemic of deeper problems.
But McIlroy got the last laugh to turn his season into “an A-plus.”
“He went through a little spell this year, and I think that was good for him,” said Woods, who can relate to the scrutiny. “We all go through those spells in our careers, and you know, he’s got all the talent in the world to do what he’s doing.”
Harrington, with three major titles himself, thinks McIlroy will sail past him in Tiger-like fashion.
“Now he’s delivered again, it’s going to be a lot easier for him going forward,” he said. “And he’ll get better.”
McIlroy didn’t look or sound like a guy satisfied with his perch.
“It’s just great to be able to put my name on another major championship trophy, and looking forward to April next year and getting a crack at another one.”
Anyone really want to question him after that?