It was a Rory McIlroy major victory unlike any other, but the degree of difficulty only made the win that much sweeter.
McIlroy battled to win the 2014 PGA Championship Sunday afternoon at Valhalla Golf Club, holding off furious rallies from Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson in a rain-delayed final round for the ages that ended in darkness.
He cruised to his first two major victories in 2011 and 2012. This year's British Open proved he could close. But on Sunday, he lost his lead only to snatch it back with determination and won his third straight tournament—two of which are majors.
Take a look at the final leaderboard:
Stenson posted the strongest round among the four top contenders with a 66, but he went even on the back nine. Fowler and Mickelson held a share of the lead late, but both failed to birdie after the 11th.
Meanwhile, McIlroy's epic eagle on No. 10 and two late birdies gave him just enough to pull ahead on the back nine. Mickelson nearly chipped in an eagle on the 18th to tie McIlroy, but nobody could quite do enough to reach him.
With his third consecutive victory after winning the British Open and WGC-Bridgestone in the last three weeks, he's joined some elite company as ESPN Stats & Information noted:
Rory McIlroy: Becomes 1st player since Tiger Woods (2006) to win 3 straight events on PGA TOUR— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 11, 2014
The Northern Irishman had maintained his lead for some time entering Sunday, but it became apparent early that it would be a fight to the finish. He bogeyed two of his first six holes with no birdies in that span.
That left Fowler and Mickelson leading the charge in the second-to-last pairing. After an early bogey, Fowler birdied four of his next five holes and took the outright lead as Mickelson wasn't far behind.
Starting the day as one of four golfers at nine-under, Stenson was on the outside looking in when the day began. But five birdies on the front nine put him into a share of the lead coming around the turn.
But McIlroy was far from done after his slow start. Still right in the thick of things entering the back nine, he landed a beauty for an eagle on the par-five 10th.
Here's his dazzling approach shot to set up the eagle:
Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde was beside himself after witnessing the hole:
THAT was one studly hole of golf by Rory McIlroy. Goodness.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) August 10, 2014
Like a quartet of the world's best horses neck-and-neck at the Kentucky Derby, the foursome of Stenson, McIlroy, Mickelson and Fowler were all within a shot of each other heading down the back nine.
With a jampacked leaderboard entering the day, Sunday figured to be compelling drama and one of the best golf days of the year. It didn't disappoint, with stars trading birdies and storylines aplenty.
Such a stacked leaderboard kept some up late, including Gary Player:
Phil, Rory, Rickie, Henrik @PGAChampionship. I can't keep up and definitely cannot go to bed now...— Gary Player (@garyplayer) August 10, 2014
As if the action wasn't exciting enough, every player was pressed for time. With heavy rain delaying the final pairing's start time until after 4 p.m. ET, the sun was beginning to set on the leaders, and they risked having to return Monday morning to finish.
Golf Channel's Jason Sobel suggested just to call off work either way:
Might as well go ahead and call in sick for work tomorrow. Even if they finish tonight, you'll need the entire day to catch your breath.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) August 10, 2014
Down the stretch they came, and the momentum kept turning away from McIlroy. Missed birdie opportunities at No. 11 and No. 12 kept him one shot behind Fowler and Mickelson, then tied at 15-under.
Fowler and Mickelson were playing one hole ahead of McIlroy, and the former leader was often able to watch his competitors putt. One instance produced a picture worth a thousand words that CBS Sports' Kyle Porter tweeted:
This is your photo of the tournament - pic.twitter.com/PoVdT7E1Xd— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) August 10, 2014
Unlike the front nine, pars were the norm among the top contenders after the turn. Whether it was the significance of the moment or less-attackable hole locations, the birdies lessened.
Around the same time Stenson bogeyed No. 14 to fall off the lead, Fowler did the same. Meanwhile, McIlroy landed a huge birdie putt on No. 13 to pull into a tie with Mickelson at 15-under.
The two stars would share the lead until the 16th, when Mickelson missed a par putt in crushing fashion to give McIlroy the outright lead.
Golf Digest's Dan Jenkins had deja vu about eight times over:
Phil has lost eight majors missing that putt.— Dan Jenkins (@danjenkinsgd) August 11, 2014
ESPN's Bomani Jones added a similar sentiment:
phil looking real familiar.— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) August 11, 2014
After Mickelson's fateful miss, Fowler's repeated failed attempts to get back into it and Stenson fading, McIlroy was in control down the stretch.
And in that familiar position one last time, he wasn't about to relinquish it.
He hit a birdie on No. 17 to gain a two-stroke lead heading down the 18th. His victory looked inevitable, but there was one problem—the sun was down.
TV cameras didn't do the lighting at Valhalla justice. Take a look at this photo from Bill Michaels:
Playing behind Mickelson and Fowler, McIlroy pressed forward and took his tee shot before the pair ahead were finished—nearly hitting a water hazard. He landed in the bunker as well on No. 18, but easily chipped it out with room to two-putt his way to victory.
Golf Digest capped up McIlroy's thoughts after the win:
Rory: "I think I showed I had a lot of guts out there to get the job done." #PGAChamp— Golf Digest (@GolfDigestMag) August 11, 2014
From jubilation to despair, this one really has to hurt for Fowler. He was in control during stretches of Sunday's final round, and he was a few poor shots away from being right there.
This about sums it up for Fowler, per Yahoo! Sports' Shane Bacon:
“This is the first one that hurts.” - Rickle Fowler, to CBS right now— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) August 11, 2014
McIlroy just keeps on rolling. Wins at the British Open and WGC-Bridgestone were apparently not enough to satisfy him, and he continues to make Tiger Woods comparisons seem less and less foolish.
There wasn't really any doubt before, but now, there's no argument. McIlroy is the best golfer in the world at the moment. His best stuff is simply untouchable, and like he just showed, he can win majors even without playing his best—which is a testament to his skill.
Majors No. 1 and No. 2 were his coming-out party. After No. 3 and No. 4, there's no doubt that he's arrived. McIlroy is officially on top of the golf world after his second straight major.