Rory McIlroy heads to the 2014 PGA Championship a three-time major winner after a triumph in England.
A wire-to-wire victory at the British Open gives the 25-year-old, who hails from Northern Ireland, a strong case for being the favorite as the 96th PGA Championship looms a mere weeks away.
Even better is the fact he is just two years removed from winning that very tournament, a third of which secures his place in the record books, as The Open's Twitter account reveals:
Running roughshod on a field of elite PGA players, from Tiger Woods to Sergio Garcia and more, has a way of making a player the favorite at the final major event of the season.
McIlroy stormed out of the gate with a 66 on Thursday, replicated that performance in Round 2 and opened the eyes of the globe the most on Saturday because of his clutch play.
He had been borderline boring through the front nine, shooting a quiet par. Sensing his third career major was in danger, McIlroy responded as he is prone to as of late—by shooting an eagle on the 16th and 18th holes.
It gave him the largest 54-hole lead at the tournament since 2000, when Woods led by six strokes. It is an advantage McIlroy has now had at three majors—of which he has won each.
It was scarier Sunday, when McIlroy saw his lead shrink to just two strokes briefly after the onset of the back nine and he was the only player in the top 10 to not shoot under par on the day. Yet he stood tall in the face of the adversity, and while it wasn't as dramatic as the two eagles, he held off the rest of the field in a collected manner.
In total, McIlroy connected on better than 68 percent of his greens, 66 percent of his fairways and averaged 327.8 yards per drive.
The thought of now returning to old stomping grounds is enticing indeed.
McIlroy ran away with the 2012 edition of the PGA Championship by eight strokes, breaking a record set by Jack Nicklaus in 1980. His bogey-free 66 in the final round cemented the triumph and shattered the historic number.
In Louisville this time around, McIlroy's momentum will be even more of an advantage over the field at Valhalla Golf Club—which was last played in 2000, won by Woods—considering the course has undergone extensive changes under the watchful eye of Nicklaus himself, as captured by T.J. Auclair of PGA.com:
After a year-long, multi-million-dollar renovation, which 18-time major champion and course designer Jack Nicklaus told reporters beforehand was because "golf equipment has changed dramatically and players have changed how they play the game dramatically," a lot has changed at Valhalla.
Now tasked with winning a second PGA Championship, it's easy to forget that McIlroy is so young. As he said on the ESPN broadcast after his win in England, each tournament continues to be a learning experience:
"I feel like I've come a long way in the past 18 months with all that's happened to me on and off the golf course. I think my determination and hard work has paid off."
One such tribulation in the past 18 months? His bumbling performance at last year's PGA Championship in Pittsford, which saw Jason Dufner run away with the top prize at 10 under par. McIlroy was seven strokes off the lead and tied for eighth, with a sloppy 71 in the second round and a 70 to finish dooming his chances.
Suffice it to say, much has changed in a rather short time period. With his three major wins coming via a combined 18 strokes, many, including Phil Mickelson, have a hard time imagining a rather immediate future in which he does not complete the career Grand Slam, per ESPN's Bob Harig:
In the present tense, though, McIlroy will have to settle for a shot at another triumph at the season's last major.
Really, who stands in his way? Certainly not Woods, who hardly survived the cut to make it all the way through the weekend. Not Garcia, despite somewhat finally silencing the critics who accuse him of implosion.
Adam Scott was quiet in England at 12-under. Rickie Fowler looks great and has now finished in the top five at all three majors this year, but clearly lacks the closing power at this point to get over the hump.
Currently, it's difficult to argue that anyone else could swipe the title away from McIlroy in Louisville if his current form remains. It should with such a short break before the event, so expect nothing short of a hot start from the current best golfer on the planet.
Projected scorecard: 68-66-70-70