LOUISVILLE, Ky.—The slogan couldn’t live up to the event.
“This is major,” they advertised. The 2014 PGA Championship, with a leaderboard of unprecedented quality, a race against darkness to reach conclusion and a champion already threatening to become the best ever, was so much more.
It was a tournament that showed at age 44 Phil Mickelson still has game and guts; a tournament that again teased and taunted Rickie Fowler; and perhaps most of all a tournament that proved even without Tiger Woods in the final two rounds golf can be wonderfully dramatic.
Rory McIlroy ended up the winner, if barely, adding this title to the British Open he won last month and to the 2012 PGA and 2011 U.S. Open. He became the first to take successive majors since Padraig Harrington did it at the same tournaments in 2008. McIlroy also joins Woods and Nicklaus as the winner of four majors at age 25.
“I try to put this talk aside every time it comes up,” McIlroy said of comparisons, "but Tiger and Jack are two of the most successful players in our sport of all time. I’ve got a long way to go, but to be in their company at this age is very special.”
But this Sunday was not just about one young man, as talented as he may be. McIlroy ended up with a three-under-par 68 for a 16-under 268 at Valhalla Golf Club, a stroke better than Mickelson’s 269 and two ahead of Fowler and Henrik Stenson.
There have been majors when Ben Hogan battled Sam Snead, and Arnold Palmer challenged Jack Nicklaus. This one offered a galaxy of stars, from McIlroy to Mickelson, to Stenson to Fowler, to Ernie Els—who went from one under par to 11 under par in a round and a half—to Jim Furyk to Louis Oosthuizen.
McIlroy in first. Fowler in first. A five-way tie for first. Mickelson, Stenson and McIlroy tied for first.
Up and back. And all the while, after a rain-forced suspension that lasted almost two hours, a constant glance at the skies and timepieces, wondering if the round could be finished or whether the players would need to return Monday.
When the final putt was holed, officials allowing McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger to virtually play up the backs up Fowler and Mickelson, and the 25-year-old McIlroy pumped his fists in triumph, it was 8:43 p.m. EDT. The sun had set a couple minutes earlier in western Kentucky.
It was time to turn on the lights. It was time to collect thoughts. To understand that the entourage fighting for the title included McIlroy, Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Els, Charl Schwartzel, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Justin Rose, each a major champion. To understand after one-sided wins in the U.S. and British Opens, we had a contest that wouldn’t let loose.
“It’s good for me to get back in the thick of it,” said Mickelson. He hadn’t had a finish in the top 10 on the PGA Tour for a year, missed the cut in the Masters, was in the 20s in the two Opens.
“And it’s fun,” he said. “Just fun.”
This PGA, the third at Valhalla, was fun, but with McIlroy and Mickelson in contention, with Els and Fowler, why wouldn’t it be.
Fowler was second in the U.S. Open, second in the British Open, now, still winless in a major, tied for third in the PGA. He was in front for a while, after birdies at the third, fourth, fifth and seventh, but a bogey at No. 14 dropped him down.
“Right now,” he sighed, “the sting. Like I said, I felt I could really win this one. It was a little different playing the last few holes in the dark. They were fairly close to calling it, but it was nice to get it in. I just wish I could have given myself a couple of better looks (for birdies) the last few holes.”
Fowler has been facing McIlroy since they were amateurs. “He’s the best player in the world right now, hands down,” said Fowler. “We’ll see if we can sneak one away from him at some point.”
McIlroy didn’t look sharp early. He bogeyed the third and sixth holes. Maybe this tournament wouldn’t belong to him. Then he birdied seven and ripped in an eagle putt on the par-five 10th. Just like that, indeed, he looked like the best player in the world.
“The eagle on 10 was massive,” McIlroy affirmed.” I think the birdie on seven settled me down. I started the round tentatively. I just didn’t have it. But the eagle on 10 just changed everything.”
What it didn’t change was the undeniable fact McIlroy is in full flight. Long ago Johnny Miller, a two-time major champion before he became an NBC commentator, told me, “Serenity is knowing your worst shot still is going to be pretty good.” McIlroy’s worst still turn out brilliantly.
Mickelson, who has won three Masters, a PGA and a British, was asked how good McIlroy is.
“Better than everyone else right now,” was Mickelson’s candid and accurate observation. “Yeah, he’s good. Really good.”
So was this PGA. What a tournament.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.