2014 PGA Championship: The Biggest Surprises at Valhalla

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2014

2014 PGA Championship: The Biggest Surprises at Valhalla

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    It’s official. The “Rory Slam” is now a thing.

    Northern Ireland superstar Rory McIlroy took his status from simply the best player in the world to a one-name phenomenon on Sunday night in Louisville, Kentucky, winning his second consecutive major with a one-shot defeat of Phil Mickelson in the PGA Championship at Valhalla.

    “I never dreamed I’d have a summer like this,” McIlroy told CBS commentator Bill McAtee after hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy for the second time in three years and just three weeks after he’d won the British Open at Royal Liverpool. “I just played the best golf of my life.”

    The win made the 25-year-old the third-youngest player since 1934 to win four career majors—joining Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus—and prompted Nicklaus to suggest, as re-told by CBS analyst Jim Nantz at the close of the broadcast, that McIlroy might earn 15-to-20 major trophies before he’s through.

    “I hope he’ll get his due now,” Nantz said. “People on the fringe of the sport haven’t recognized that this kid is special and that he’s been the story and no one else.”

    While having McIlroy’s name etched isn’t exactly a surprise, the 2014 event was not without its eyebrow-raising moments. Take a look at our list of six of them and feel free to share your views in the comments section.

Withered by the Weather

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    A month after the traditionally weather-beaten British Open bucked the norm with no significant concerns, Mother Nature showed up in Kentucky with a greens-sopping vengeance.

    Torrential downpours prompted the course-clearing horn to sound at 12:54 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon, which sent both TNT and CBS scrambling for filler material as squeegees replaced drivers for 111 minutes before play ultimately resumed at 2:45 p.m.

    Only eight players had completed their final rounds before play was stopped.

    The passing clouds left an inch of precipitation in 45 minutes before they exited stage northeast, forcing the CBS broadcast crew to get itself familiar with the casual water rule and dip into supplemental footage of players clowning about needing snorkels and rowboats to complete their scheduled rounds.

    Whatever expense was laid out for drainage appeared worthwhile, though. By the time the third-round leaders teed off shortly after 4 p.m., standing water wasn't nearly as visible as it had been an hour prior.

Tom Tames Tiger, Part II

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    MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

    It’s one thing if you look at the results on a cut day, or at the end of an event, and see the shell of what used to be Tiger Woods finishing way down on leaderboards he’d been accustomed to topping.

    It is, after all, the reality of a deteriorating 38-year-old body competing against younger, fitter opponents eager to make names for themselves by beating a 14-time major champion.

    But it’s another thing when 64-year-olds start using him for a punching bag as well.

    Following up on a British Open performance in which he’d bested Tiger by five strokes, Tom Watson made it two straight by bettering Woods by three shots in the last major before Watson—captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team—will be forced to decide whether to include Woods on the 2014 roster.

    A 69th place at Royal Liverpool and a missed PGA cut go a long way toward making the choice academic. And as it turned out, Woods was also lapped at Valhalla by birthday boy Kenny Perry, who woke the echoes of a second-place PGA finish 18 years ago with a final-round 68 on the day he turned 54.

A Little Foreign Flavor

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Though seeing Rory McIlroy’s name at the top of a major leaderboard is hardly a shock, the sudden, significant infiltration of players who crossed international borders to become a Louisville factor might be.

    Heading into Sunday’s final 18 holes, no fewer than six of the top eight and eight of the top 12 had flags other than the Red, White and Blue alongside their names. Just a year earlier, when the PGA title was up for grabs at Oak Hill in Upstate New York, six of the top 11 finishers were Americans.

    The previous two majors held on U.S. soil this year had also featured more of a domestic flavor, with Americans taking four of the top six positions at the Masters in April, then seven of the top 11 at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in June.

    Last month at Royal Liverpool for the British Open, half of the top four slots were ultimately U.S.-owned, too.

Bernd Baby, Bernd

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    If you began your PGA tournament pool by picking a 28-year-old Austrian who’d made one cut in five previous majors to finish near the top, chances are good that colleagues laughed you out of the room.

    But by the time Sunday afternoon arrived, possession of the last laugh had changed.

    Indeed, previously anonymous Bernd Wiesberger was the highest-placing gate-crasher over four days in Louisville, sharing the final-round pairing with McIlroy before ultimately shooting a three-over-par 74 over the final 18 holes to finish tied for 15th overall.

    It was a stunning big-stage breakout for a player ranked 70th in the world on the eve of the event and whose annual European Tour standings—22nd in 2012, 28th in 2013—hardly inspired talk that he’d be anywhere near position to end a victory drought that stretches back to the 2013 Indonesian Masters.

    Incidentally, the total purse for 70 players in that Asian Tour event was $750,000.

    Sunday’s winner in Louisville, McIlroy, took home a cool $1.8 million.

A New Way to Seal the Deal

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Though Rory McIlroy had clearly found a path to major success in three of the four previous opportunities he'd had as a 54-hole leader, the one he navigated on Sunday was a special one.

    Rather than blowing away the field as he'd done to win the U.S. Open in 2011 (by eight strokes), the PGA in 2012 (by eight strokes) and the British Open last month (by two strokes, after he'd led by six), McIlroy held a reed-thin, one-shot lead entering the final 18 holes and fell behind by as many as two strokes through six holes on Sunday.

    He remained two back through the front nine, in fact, before beginning the ultimately successful charge with a dramatic second shot on No. 10 that led to a seven-foot putt for eagle. He pulled into a tie with Mickelson three holes later and never trailed again.

    "I think I showed a lot of guts out there to get the job done," he said to CBS' Bill McAtee.

Darkness on the Edge of Glory

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Thanks to the nearly two-hour rain delay earlier in the day, the tournament wound its way to a surreal end with the final two pairings—involving Fowler, Mickelson, Wiesberger and McIlroy—essentially combining into a foursome to ensure the event would end before pitch blackness arrived.

    It was a drastic departure from the typically ceremonial end at majors, where the final twosomes walk the fairway to gallery cheers before separately finishing their business on the green. This time, though, it was a race against the collective elements, as sunset gave way to full-on darkness, and thunder rumbled in the approaching distance. 

    In fact, as the players reached the green, CBS analyst Nick Faldo suggested they could play by the light of assembled cell phones, likening the scene to a modern-day music concert. 

    And though neither Fowler nor Mickelson told CBS commentators after play ended that they’d been at all miffed by the clustering, some of those same announcers opined that Mickelson appeared annoyed during a prolonged discussion with an on-course rules official.

    Mickelson said he’d been told McIlroy and Wiesberger would only be allowed to tee off at No. 18 before he and Fowler hit their second shots, but all four swung in quickening succession as play unfolded, which enabled McIlroy to reach the 18th green with enough light remaining to putt twice for the clinching par.

    “I wanted to win this thing and get out of here,” he told Bill McAtee, when asked if he’d considered requesting a delay until Monday morning.

    The delay added to Jim Nantz’s dramatic studio theme when the final putt dropped, as he proclaimed, “We have a shining star at sunset. Rory continues his run to greatness.”