Rory McIlroy hits a sand shot out of a green side bunker on the 18th hole during the final round of the 2014 PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club. (USA TODAY Sports: Brian Spurlock)
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Talk of the ‘Tiger era’ being replaced by a ‘Rory era’ escalated after Rory McIlroy thrust himself into golf’s pantheon of greats by clinching his fourth major title at the 96th PGA Championship on Sunday.
While Tiger Woods ended a disappointing week at Valhalla Golf Club by missing the cut at a major for only the fourth time as a professional, McIlroy won his third consecutive tournament with a dazzling display of shot-making down the closing stretch.
The Northern Irishman overcame a scrappy start to triumph by one stroke after a final-round shootout on a rain-softened layout ended in near darkness, and the superlatives were once again being heaped upon the 25-year-old from Holywood.
“It’s beginning to look a little Tiger-esque I suppose,” former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said of his fellow Northern Irishman, who has won two majors in just three weeks.
“I said to the boys at the (British) Open (where McIlroy won last month), I didn’t think we were going to see the new Tiger era, as in someone creating their own kind of Tiger-esque era just yet.
“I’m not eating my words but I’m certainly starting to chew on them right now, with the WGC (Bridgestone Invitational win) and another major this weekend. When the kid is playing well, he’s pretty tough to live with. Pretty special stuff, yeah.”
McIlroy himself is wary of any hype that golf could now be entering a ‘Rory era’ of individual dominance.
“I try and put all this talk aside every time it comes up,” he said after becoming the fourth youngest player to land four majors, with only Tom Morris Jr., Jack Nicklaus and Woods ahead of him.
“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. I’ve still got a long way to go, but to be in their company at this age is very special.”
Whatever McIlroy says, he clearly possesses abundant talent, a strong work ethic and that magical ‘it’ factor which is reserved for very few players.
His ability to blow away fields, as he did in winning the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship by eight shots apiece, or to conjure something extra-special when needed, as he did on the back nine at Valhalla, marks him out as a great.
A spectacular eagle at the par-five 10th, followed by birdies at the 13th and 17th, secured him his third major crown in his last nine starts and left his defeated rivals purring in admiration.
“Better than everyone else right now. He’s good, really good,” said Phil Mickelson, who had been part of a thrilling four-way shootout for the title in the final round until McIlroy trumped him by a stroke.
“He’s on a role, he is the best player in the world and just playing phenomenal golf,” said Swede Henrik Stenson, one of five players who held a share of the lead on Sunday before he finished joint third.
“He’s got the confidence. He just keeps coming back and playing aggressive and good golf. So it’s just to take our hats off and give him the appreciation he deserves.”
Dubbed ‘Boy Wonder’ because of the superstar credentials he established at such a young age, McIlroy is a near-perfect golfing package, both a man of the people and a player of rare skill.
Ever humble, he is a perpetually smiling golfer who strides the fairways with a swagger and his shoulders back, always completely at home in his environment.
Having now won the fourth major title of his career, many are questioning whether he can go on to reach the 14 piled up by Woods or the record 18 accumulated by Nicklaus. McIlroy embraces the weight of expectation.
“You have to welcome it and I don’t think you can see it as a burden,” he beamed. “It’s a great place to be in.
“To be the face of golf or one of the faces of golf, it’s a big responsibility, but at the same time, I feel like I’m up to the task of handling it well. At 25 years of age, I didn’t think I would be in this position.”
McIlroy is taking great pains, though, to adopt a mid-term career strategy instead casting his eyes too far into the future.
“I’ve got to take it one small step at a time,” he said. “I think the two next realistic goals are the career grand slam, and trying to become the most successful European player ever.
“Nick Faldo, most successful European ever in the modern era, has six majors. Seve (Ballesteros) has five.”
McIlroy would complete a career slam of all four majors if he can win the Masters at Augusta National, where he led by four shots going into the final round in 2011 before he tumbled out of contention with an nightmare closing 80.
“And hopefully, when I achieve those (goals), I can start to think about other things,” he said. “But right now, that’s what my focus is on.”