The 2014 PGA Championship's final round on Sunday was everything golf fans could have hoped for in terms of entertainment, big names in contention and dramatics at Valhalla Golf Club.
Rory McIlroy entered with a one-stroke lead, but soft conditions, which had caused play to be suspended earlier in the day, allowed stars such as Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson to fire at flags and chase down and eclipse McIlroy multiple times.
But it was McIlroy on top when the dust settled, one stroke over Mickelson, amid dusk and an epic conclusion. McIlroy has now won his second Wanamaker Trophy in three years and his fourth career major title, and he will try to complete the career Grand Slam at the 2015 Masters.
CBS Sports highlighted the rarefied air McIlroy finds himself in with this latest win:
Even McIlroy, a wunderkind from Northern Ireland, was stunned upon reflecting afterward on how instantaneous his success has been:
Comparisons to the two legends he joined will persist, but based on McIlroy's post-tournament testimony, it seems his attitude toward holding such elite company won't change much, per PGA.com:
I try and put all this talk aside every time it comes up, but Tiger and Jack are two of the most successful players in our sport of all time. I'm on a nice track at the minute and I'm on a nice path. I've still got a long way to go, but to be in their company at this age is very special.
[...] I'm not sure I'll ever have another summer like this, so I've got a week off now and I'm going to enjoy it. I've got a lot of golf left to play this year, but I have to enjoy what I've just done.
McIlroy took to Twitter to talk about his summer and also had an exchange with Fowler:
@RickieFowlerPGA your day is coming... And very soon! Great fight out there, let's hope for many more battles in the future!— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) August 11, 2014
A birdie on the par-four 17th proved critical to the outcome, as McIlroy poured it in center cut, extending his lead to two strokes at the time:
The final two pairings, featuring Fowler, Mickelson and McIlroy, were trying to beat the darkness, and McIlroy nearly hit it in the water hazard to the right of the 18th fairway, staying on the grass by mere feet.
Mickelson, who carded a 66, was just inches away from chipping in for eagle after McIlroy's second shot found the greenside bunker:
Fowler had an eagle putt to tie McIlroy from long range that went begging, and he wound up three-putting. That set the stage for McIlroy to polish it off and get his hands on that big, beautiful Wanamaker.
In a Saturday interview, McIlroy knew he was getting into a shootout and compared it to his last major triumph at The Open Championship, per The Associated Press, via ESPN.com:
Tomorrow standing on the first tee is going to feel different than how it felt a month ago at Hoylake because you don't have that ... it is going to be a shootout. You know the conditions are soft. Guys are going to make birdies. And you know that you're going to have to make birdies as well.
Standing water at certain soggy spots on the fairway also caused backups on multiple tees and slowed play—but that might have been a good thing, because galleries in Louisville, Kentucky, were treated to downright sensational golf.
The world No. 1 struggled early, and Golf Channel's Jason Sobel weighed in on how it was a stretch McIlroy seemed bound for all week:
Rory McIlroy didn't have his best stuff the past three days and still led. Doesn't have his best stuff today and finally starting to hurt.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) August 10, 2014
Then, McIlroy found another gear, hitting a majestic, low bullet of a fairway metal into the par-five 10th green approximately seven feet from the cup. He was the only one to hit the surface in two the entire day, and McIlroy drained the eagle putt to get right back into the mix.
McIlroy admitted he mishit the shot that ultimately turned his day around, and he acknowledged how big of a turning point it was:
Rory on that 3-wood at 10: "It was probably about 30 feet lower than I intended & the line was about 15 yards left." pic.twitter.com/vmZbQ3dZRb— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 11, 2014
An iron to the fairway, a little flipped wedge in and another birdie followed on the short, par-four 13th:
McIlroy was just beginning a series of holes he'd owned all week, per Golf Central:
Shane Bacon of Yahoo Sports brought up the notable duel at Valhalla from 2000 and then acknowledged that this new wave of stars, headlined by McIlroy and Fowler, provided plenty of Sunday theatre:
And yes, I will trade Tiger Woods for Phil Mickelson and Bob May for Rory, Henrik and Rickie. Sorry, 2000 PGA.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) August 10, 2014
Golf legend Gary Player was also pleased with how the championship was unfolding:
Phil, Rory, Rickie, Henrik @PGAChampionship. I can't keep up and definitely cannot go to bed now...— Gary Player (@garyplayer) August 10, 2014
There are almost too many highlights to count, but Fowler was in sole possession of the lead when he sunk a 28-footer for birdie to get to 15 under par on the 10th (moments before McIlroy's heroics on the same hole).
Fowler started hot, firing a three-under 32 on the front nine, where he fought off a bogey on No. 2 with three straight birdies.
The California cool he exuded after holing that bomb on the 10th made Fowler even more likable, as he played alongside the likes of Hall of Famer Mickelson, who put forth by far his best tournament of the year.
Again, though, it was the young McIlroy who came out on top. Justin Ray of Golf Channel noted just how big Fowler has played in the top tournaments, only to come away with consolation, even after matching McIlroy's 68 in the last round:
Rickie Fowler: 1st player in modern era to finish top-5 in all 4 of season's majors without a win.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) August 11, 2014
Mickelson was one better than Fowler on the front side and birdied the 11th to tie Fowler at the top. He saved par with a long putt on No. 12.
Ray emphasized just how unexpected that amazing save was:
Phil Mickelson's par save at 12 measured at 28'5" -- Tour players made putts of that distance 8% of the time— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) August 10, 2014
Even better on the first nine holes was Stenson with a score of 30, as he birdied all the odd-numbered holes to vault himself up the leaderboard. The reigning FedEx Cup champion is one of the best in the world not to have won a major, contending for the second straight year at the PGA.
Unfortunately, there can only be one winner, and Stenson goes home again with more heartbreak. Numerous grinds for par kept him in the hunt down the stretch, as did a fortuitous birdie on No. 13 that left the animated Stenson sheepish:
He bogeyed the 14th and settled for pars on the next three holes, which meant he would've needed an eagle on the par-five 18th to match McIlroy. A wayward second shot made Stenson's eagle chip almost impossible, though he did almost hole his fourth from the left of the putting surface before settling for a 66.
As excellent as the storylines were regarding Fowler and Stenson perhaps breaking through at a major and Mickelson in the running for his sixth major title, the main man of the hour was McIlroy. It may be that way for a long time coming.
Fans still refuse to acknowledge McIlroy or give him his just due, instead favoring Tiger Woods, even as his future of winning any more majors is in doubt. However, McIlroy has fortified his status as the best player on the planet, beating world-class fields filled with big names on the leaderboard.
McIlroy is already a Hall of Famer with what he's achieved to date, though if his mindset of late is any indication, he is far from done. The most exciting aspect of McIlroy's fourth major is that his ceiling has yet to be determined. There may be a new superstar making his case as the greatest of all time.
Just don't tell that to McIlroy. He is taking these majors one at a time. When he takes the stroll up Magnolia Lane to Augusta National in April, there will be no shortage of excitement.
Golf is indeed entering a new era, and McIlroy is the indubitable face of it.