By IGOR GURYASHKIN
In the confines of the black void of lightless land that was Valhalla golf course on Sunday night, with nothing to illuminate his beaming face but the full moon and the sparkle of flash coming from the world’s media, Rory McIlroy held the Wanamaker trophy aloft knowing he’d just done something truly remarkable. He had won his second consecutive major in a row, his fourth overall and had done so with the backdrop of one of the most dramatic days in golf’s recent memory. On paper, McIlroy had made it look easy. It was yet another triumph in an ever-burgeoning list. The reality, though, was that Sunday at Valhalla will go down as his toughest triumph to date, a victory that looked all the less likely just a few hours prior. But then again, this is golf â€“ at Valhalla.
While itâ€™s a ridiculous clichÃ© that golf’s majors are won and lost on the final nine holes, thatâ€™s unquestionably where the most drama happens. This yearâ€™s incarnation of the PGA has the rain to thank for that. We were promised precipitation – and boy did it come. Like a southeast Asian deluge, the course’s greens turned blue, fairways disappeared and the full rank of Valhalla’s volunteer corp were called to stem the tide of the water threatening to wash away championship Sunday. What transpired over the next few hours was an unlikely sun, a superhuman effort by the crew and the smallest of windows to finish the tournament on Sunday and avoid an anticlimactic return on Monday.
Once the play got underway, Valhalla was treated to two things: a whole host of birdies and humidity the thickness of a Russian sauna. The world’s best golfers started to scythe their clubs through the dense, moist bluegrass air and began posting scores in the red. Kenny Perry, the bespectacled Kentucky hero playing in his final major, walked off having made the cut and having shot 68. So, too, fellow Kentuckian J.B. Holmes (78). With the course damp and wind nonexistent, players could attack the flag and buccaneer their way up the leaderboard.
And then came the moment when the top four would embark on their PGA finale. Rory McIlroy, paired with the unlikely Bernd Wiesberger, followed the dynamic pairing of Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler. While Wiesberger was expected to fade during the final round (which he did), it was expected that with the lead already in hand, all McIlroy had to do was turn up, play steady and wait for his opponents to wilt in the thick air. That was the plan, anyway. It didn’t take into account the fact that Fowler and Mickelson had a copious amount of birdies up their sleeve. In the first five holes, Fowler notched 4 birdies. Mickelson too had enough that when the front nine were finished, both him and Fowler were on fifteen under par with McIlroy three shots back. While Mickelson and Fowler (who wore his traditional Sunday best of fluorescent orange in honor of his alma mater, Oklahoma State) traded birdies and fist bumps in equal measure.
But there was one curious moment during the round, which perhaps signaled an omen to anyone other than McIlroy, that the man from County Down would win. It happened on the sixth hole. With the heavy rain causing a bottleneck earlier in the day, McIlroy found himself on the same tee box as Mickelson and Fowler, all waiting to tee off as the pair in front had only just got under way. It was a good 10-minute wait. While Mickelson and Fowler exchanged pleasantries with a slightly reserved Wiesberger and demure J.P. Fitzgerald – McIlroy’s caddie – the man himself moved to the side and sat away from his fellow luminaries. Not one â€œhello,â€ not one glance that could even be mistakenly construed as eye contact. The reigning British Open champion wanted nothing to do with his opponents, and it was obvious. Perhaps he was angry that Lefty (as Mickelson is affectionately known) and Fowler had usurped his lead. Maybe there was regret that he’d not seized the moment earlier. But make no mistake, there was no visible anguish on McIlroy’s face. Rather, his expression was neutral and in possession of the same serene stare found on a Roman statue.Â He went on to bogey that same hole, but come the 10th, his 284-yard howitzer with a 3-wood ensured he landed close enough to make eagle and wrestle the championship back within reach. That eagle putt, the roar for which reverberated around, was a signal that the world number-one was back. From that hole on, Fowler would not find another birdie, while Mickelson would bogey along the way. The drama now rested on when McIlroy would catch the pack, not if.
Come the 17th hole, Fowler found himself on the opposite fairway after a disastrous drive. A miracle shot, reminiscent of fellow golfing maverick Bubba Watson, saw the tangerine-clad youngster whip a shot up and around a set of trees, landing on the green and saving par from a miraculous position. But by this point, the tables had switched and the world numer one still had the lead. Fowler’s audacious par was a mere Sisyphean feat: all glory and no spoils.
Even the final hole, the par-5 18th nestled squarely below the clubhouse, provided ample drama. Despite the Northern Irishman walking up to the green with a two-shot cushion, it was only moments earlier that Mickelson nearly turned the tournament on itâ€™s head. Chipping from the rough below the pin, the crowd-favorite Californian launched his shot high, the ball arcing towards the hole, dropping, gripping, trickling towards the void perfectly inline – except to break at the last moment. That miss gave the left-hander a birdie when he needed an eagle to tie for the lead. It also ensured that McIlroyâ€™s walk to the green was transformed from a potential battle into a victorious procession.
The win, secured after a routine two putt on the 18th, precisely one minute after the stubborn Kentucky sun decided to set, placed Rory McIlroy firmly within the pantheon of golfâ€™s greats. Within the space of a month, the Holywood native went from possessing two majors to four – now a mere two away from being the most successful European golfer ever. Heâ€™s only 25. He has another decade of prime golf remaining that shows no signs of abating. What the soaked and sweaty throngs got to see at Valhalla was a player lift himself from the level of â€œbest in the worldâ€ to a point at which he can start laying claim to being one of the best of his era – the post-Tiger Woods era.
In the end, though, the winner was golf. While you sense McIlroy would be a transcendental superstar if he were American, heâ€™s nevertheless such an indelible force of talent and thoughtful charisma that heâ€™ll be the sportâ€™s biggest star for years to come. McIlroyâ€™s journey of winning at Valhalla was based on surging ahead of the pack in the early rounds, falling behind in the last, and then outlasting his opponents who failed to deal with the searing pressure under which he placed them in the final stretch. It was the most difficult challenge of his career, and the most thrilling for those lucky to be in attendance on that balmy Kentucky night. Valhalla once again was the purveyor of golfing lore. The Ryder Cup came before in 2008, and almost 15 years ago a certain Tiger Woods beat out Bob May in a thrilling playoff. This yearâ€™s offering was Rory McIlroy besting a plethora of the gameâ€™s best to show he is the best. Welcome to The Age of Rory.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune and BILL WINE | Contributing Photographer