After a string of relative duds this season, an all-star cast conspired to make the PGA Championship a classic until the very last shot in the dark.
Rory McIlroy confirmed his standing as golf’s new “it” guy, joining Young Tom Morris, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones as the only golfers in history to win four majors before they turned 26. Yeah, that classifies as “Hall of Fame” even without the constant reminders by The Script in those Omega watch commercials.
McIlroy’s third consecutive win in three starts was his most brilliant yet, rallying against some heavyweight challengers after a slow start with an eagle on 10 and a couple of fist-pumping birdies on 13 and 17 to ice it.
The ending was surreal – if a little unbecoming of a major. Despite desperately needing eagles on the reachable par-5 18th to catch McIlroy, both Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler agreed to let the leader tee off immediately after they did to allow the chance to finish before complete darkness. It was a classy show of sportsmanship under tense circumstances.
But while Mickelson and Fowler wanted to finish while there was still barely enough light to read the green, the PGA usurped their etiquette rights and made them wait for McIlroy to hit his approach to the green as well. It clearly rattled both players, whose best hope was to make eagle or hope McIlroy made a mistake trying to hurry to beat the darkness.
Mickelson barely missed his eagle chip, Fowler three-putted and McIlroy saved par out of the bunker to win by one. It might have ended up that way anyway, but it wasn’t the PGA’s right to intervene (especially after creating the issue anyway by stubbornly adhering to a late start for TV despite forecasted bad weather that led to a delay).
No arguing the results. The prime-time showdown drove ratings up 36 percent from last year and confirmed golf’s newest megastar.
For those not fortunate enough to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy, a subjective recap:
BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. An absolutely brilliant major season brought a T3 to go with his T5 at the Masters Tournament and runner-ups at the U.S. and British Opens. He said this one “hurt the most” as he couldn’t muster another birdie after being tied for the lead through 10 holes. But safe to say Fowler is a rivalry force in golf’s new hierarchy.
BIRDIE: Phil Mickelson. After a season mostly to forget, Lefty provided an unforgettable bid for a sixth career major. Only a bit of bad luck on 16 – when his pitch hit the hole but rolled 10 feet by – prevented him from beating the new king.
BOGEY: Bubba Watson. It was a rough week for the green-jacketed one. He staged a petty protest of the non-invasive long drive competition, he grumbled about rain on his clubface in the second round and dropped Tiger Woods’ favorite profanity into microphones and ended up having to apologize to his fans on Twitter. Distraction seems to be his enemy of late.
BIRDIE: This is 44. It’s not all about the kids. Not only was 44-year-old Phil a welcome threat, age mates Ernie Els and Jim Furyk represented the old guard well. Els charged into contention with six birdies in 11 holes Sunday before leveling off while Furyk posted his second consecutive top-5 major finish to go with his 14th at Masters, 12th at U.S. Open and runner-up at Players.
BOGEY: Tiger Woods. After turning up on the tournament’s eve like a rock star and declaring himself fit enough to play after withdrawing the Sunday before, Woods struggled and missed the cut like a mortal again. Fans shouldn’t see him on TV again until 2015.
BIRDIE: Jason Day. After all the health issues this summer including his thumb and vertigo, Day’s T15 was impressive. Especially his bare-footed par save from a creek bed in the lead group on Saturday.
BOGEY: Past PGA champs. Only three former PGA champions made the cut – McIlroy, Mickelson and Vijay Singh. Eleven others withdrew or missed the cut, including reigning U.S. Open champ Martin Kaymer, Keegan Bradley, Padraig Harrington and Tiger.
BIRDIE: Augusta State. Patrick Reed becomes the third former Jaguar to qualify to play in the last five Ryder Cups, following Vaughn Taylor (2006) and Oliver Wilson (2008). Only one other college (Oklahoma State) has placed as many different players in the biennial competition during that same span. Impressive.
BOGEY: Jason Dufner. It was tough to see the defending champion walk off the course with a neck injury after making triple on the 10th hole. The exit cost Dufner an automatic berth in the Ryder Cup, though he might not be healthy enough to play anyway.
BIRDIE: Steve Stricker. Accepts an assistant captain role in Ryder Cup and subsequently goes out and finishes seventh. Perhaps he should play a bigger role than driving the cart.
BOGEY: Tom Watson. Missing the cut was the least of his worries as his Ryder Cup team looks overmatched and perhaps without staples Matt Kuchar (back), Dufner (neck), Woods (bad) and Dustin Johnson (leave of absence). Good luck captain.
BIRDIE: Bernd Wiesberger. The Austrian you might not have heard of before this week earned a tee time with McIlroy in the final pairing. It didn’t work out, but it’s a good experience.
BOGEY: Bulldogs bubble boys. Brendon Todd, Chris Kirk and Harris English were all trying to impress Tom Watson for Ryder Cup consideration. Kirk and English missed the cut while Todd faded to 73rd after a fast start.
BIRDIE: Mikko Ilonen. Finn one of only three players to post four rounds in the 60s (McIlroy and Stricker the others).
BOGEY: Henrik Stenson. This may be rough on a guy who finished third, but you can’t three-putt from 20 feet on 14 while sharing lead or hit 3-wood on 18 when you need an eagle.
BIRDIE: Louisville. Fans flocked to the course in spite of heat and rain and made it a major event even before the fireworks.
BOGEY: PGA of America. Decision to play ball down all week on a saturated course was stubborn, with mud balls having a clear impact on the outcome. Even worse was not being willing to move tee times forward just a little Sunday to avoid the rush to beat darkness that ultimately ensued.
BIRDIE: Valhalla. It hardly qualifies to be in the same company as Augusta National or Pinehurst architecturally, but the Jack Nicklaus course has a knack for bringing out drama and Hall of Fame champions (Mark Brooks notwithstanding).
BIRDIE: Masters. Not only will Rory be trying to complete his career slam, he now will seek the third consecutive leg of his own major slam. Like 2001 with Tiger, people will be talking about Masters for next 240 days and the hype will be immense.