There was a parting in the dark clouds that allowed a peek of light at dusk, a celestial walkway, if you will, for Rory McIlroy to find even higher ground. Full of bounce and nerve, he wasn’t bothered by the sudden bolt of lightning behind the clubhouse, or the annoyingly bright bulb required in the CBS booth behind the 18th green, or the mad rush to finish the fourth round of the PGA Championship before nightfall made it impossible to continue.
This was a convergence of chaotic circumstance that could have rattled someone who, despite remarkable success early in his golfing career, still was a 25-year-old lad with big eyes and a boyish face. And when he dumped his second shot on the 72nd hole into the bunker, after nearly hitting his tee shot into a hazard, it seemed for the first time in months that McIlroy indeed was a kid who could blow a tournament. He could have elected, by the sport’s rules, to play the shot the next morning due to insufficient light conditions.
Not Rory. “I wanted to win this thing and get out of here,’’ he said.
So, he did. He left the bunker shot 35 feet short of the cup, but McIlroy had two putts to spare. He barely needed one, cooly leaving the ball a few inches short and then tapping it in for his fourth major championship, his third consecutive title this season and even louder praise as the young champion who, in one swoop, might make it easier to wave farewell to Tiger Woods while laying out his own historic path.
“I didn’t think in my wildest dreams I’d have a summer like this,” McIlroy said. “I played the best golf of my life. I think I showed a lot of guts out there to get the job done.’’
Only Woods and Jack Nicklaus won their fourth majors at a younger age. Though it leaves me squeamish to project the ultimate number for McIlroy — have you noticed what has happened to Tiger since he won he won his 14th in 2008? — watching him rally from a three-stroke deficit at Valhalla only reinforces belief that he’ll rule golf for the next dozen years. It was Nicklaus who said the other day, “I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing.’’ I assume an addendum could apply: as long as he keeps his head on straight and doesn’t engage in extramarital sex scandals.
But McIlroy already has survived adversity in his 20s. Sure, he pleads for restraint, cringing when someone suggested The Rory Era is upon us. “Sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon and jump on certain things,” he said. “I’ve had a great run of golf, and I’ve played well over the past few months. I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game. I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the world rankings and competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.
“So I’m not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I’m just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute, and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible.”
In fighting off the aging master, Phil Mickelson, and a potential long-term American rival in 25-year-old Rickie Fowler, McIlroy once again announced that nothing bugs him. There was a bizarre sequence on No. 18 that was confusing for everyone, mostly for Mickelson, who was visibly puzzled why the PGA of America broke usual protocol and allowed McIlroy to hit his tee shot on the final hole before Mickelson and Fowler had hit their second shots in the fairway. Continuing to focus on McIlroy, officials let him take his second shot while the others had to stand and watch. The explanation: They were trying to finish the round before darkness completely fell. But the decision could have been perceived as helping McIlroy, the crackling new star of a sport that desperately needs a youthful beacon as young people repel from the game in the phone-in-hand, fast-paced 21st century.
While Mickelson was too classy to complain that the commotion cost him his sixth major title, he wasn’t thrilled. “It’s not normally what we do,’’ he said. “(But) it didn’t affect the outcome of the championship at all. It’s not a big deal either way.’’
“We were cool with (McIlroy) hitting the tee shot,’’ Fowler said. “We weren’t expecting the approach shots.’’
But who could protest too much when McIlroy clearly was the best down the stretch, as he has been all summer?
“He’s better than everyone else right now,’’ said Mickelson, still contending at 44.
“He has played some pretty stellar golf. Best player in the world, hands down,’’ Fowler said. “We’ll see if we can sneak one away from him some point.’’
Or, as Nicklaus said, “I think Rory is an unbelievable talent. I love his swing, I love his rhythm, I love his moxie. He’s got a little swagger there, it’s a little bit cocky but not offensive. I like that. I like the self-confidence in a young man. He’s got an unbelievable amount of speed in his golf swing, he obviously hits the ball a heck of a long way. And he hits in there consistently and how he controls it.’’
This after he was forced to change his phone passcode after a nosy camera, during an earlier rain delay, caught him typing in his numbers on an iPhone in the clubhouse. “Passcode changed… Now time to play some golf,’’ he tweeted.
He’s got this. In everything he does, he’s got this.
All McIlroy lacks is a victory at the Masters to complete a career Grand Slam. If he wins the Masters and U.S. Open, he’ll have a Rory Slam — like Tiger once upon a time, all four major titles at once. I know, restraint. “People can say what they want to say, that’s fine,” McIlroy said. “But I can’t read too much into it. I just need to continue to practice hard and play well, and if I do, that’s all I can do and try not to read too much of the stuff that’s being written, because if you read everything that was being written, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.”
It’s daunting enough in one’s middle age to deal with lawyers, business deals and shattered romantic relationships. If McIlroy has survived his trials of fire in his 20s, then I’m liking his odds of winning more in the golfing world than just a Ladbrokes bet for his father, who proudly wagered in 2004 at 500/1 odds that his son would win the British Open within 10 years — and cashed in last month at $300,000 plus.
Closer to the point, might we be watching the giant early footsteps of an all-time maestro?In this numbing stretch, McIlroy has reintroduced himself as a global sensation, exactly what we’anticipated since he arrived with Tiger-like force three years ago at Congressional, site of his record-breaking romp at the U.S. Open, and then a year later at the PGA, where he won by a record eight shots. He has spent the last two years in a self-acknowledged funk, not entirely of his own doing yet filled with experiences that unraveled his golf game. Maybe his problem was raw naivety, knowing him as a lad from County Down, Northern Ireland, who evidently wasn’t ready for a big-boy-pants swirl that invaded his young life of simplicity.
What has he been through? First there was an endorsement transition to Nike that forced him to change his equipment, a simple flip for a baseball or basketball player but not for a golfer who relies on his clubs and ball like close friends. Then he fired his management group, which had replaced a group he’d previously fired, decisions that allegedly violated contracts and resulted in lawsuits. Then he met a tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who was No. 1 in the world at the same time McIlroy was the buzz of the golfing planet. You imagined how athletically gifted their kids would be, but the relationship sputtered, with both tumbling in the rankings amid strife that ended in May when McIlroy broke up with Wozniacki by phone — as they were preparing invitations for their scheduled wedding. A life in upheaval was reflected in his erratic game, with no trend more troubling than his struggles in the second round of tournaments big and small, leading the great Nicklaus to broach the topic of what became known as “Freaky Fridays.’’
“I didn’t mention it to him,’’ McIlroy said. “He mentioned it to me — `How the hell can you shoot 63 and then 78?’ I think what we talked about was just holding a round together.’’
Certainly, his spirits are much better now, free of commitments and hassles.
“I’m immensely proud of myself,” he said recently. “I’ve really found my passion again for golf. Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer I can be. And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability.”
With most of his personal problems behind him — the lawsuits are still pending — McIlroy sounds like he has his eyes only on the next prize. “Am I in a better place? I’m happy with everything that’s going on,” he said. “I’m just really focused on my golf.’’
We can’t wait to see what’s next as he walks between the clouds, enveloped by light in the gloaming, firmly entrenched now as the king of his sport and, for now, all others.