First the rain came, flooding an already soft and vulnerable Valhalla Golf Club on Sunday afternoon until the greens were ponds and the fairways were streaked by flowing rivulets. The leader board heading into the final round was stocked with golf’s elite, and the combination of talent and a vulnerable, receptive course foreshadowed a showdown of aggressive, attacking shot-making.
The previous three major championships this year had been notable for their lack of drama as the eventual winners took comfortable leads into the final hours and cruised to weighty if wearisome victories. By contrast, the final round of the P.G.A. Championship was a taut battle more like a heavyweight prizefight. Four men climbed into the ring and exchanged birdies at a sizzling pace in close quarters.
Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson took turns holding at least a piece of the tournament lead across four hours of major-championship anxiety. Racing to be done before sunset because the rain had delayed the tournament by nearly two hours, they briskly charged and parried until McIlroy found the resolve to make a pivotal birdie at the 17th hole and held on with a par on the 18th to claim a one-shot victory over Mickelson.
Earlier in the afternoon, McIlroy, who began the day in the lead, had been three strokes back. “I think I showed a lot of guts,” McIlroy said afterward. “I had to come back, and I had to overcome some struggles on the front nine. There were moments of adversity there. It was getting dark. There was a lot going on, so I’m proud of the way I won.”
McIlroy’s final-round 68 put him at 16 under par for the tournament. Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson finished two shots back at 14 under. It was McIlroy’s second major victory of the season, his second P.G.A. Championship and the fourth major title of his young, flourishing career. At 25, he is the third-youngest golfer to win four majors, behind Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. When McIlroy won his previous three major titles, including this year’s British Open, he had a big lead and protected it in the final round. On Sunday, he had to rally and persevere. In that way, it may be his greatest performance in a major championship.
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“Rory is just playing better than everyone else right now — that’s three in a row,” said Fowler, referring to McIlroy’s consecutive victories in the British Open, the Bridgestone Invitational and the P.G.A. “We’ll see if we can sneak one away from him at some point.”
On the opening nine holes Sunday, it looked as if several golfers might stall McIlroy’s streak. Though he began the day with a one-stroke lead, he soon found himself in a five-way tie. Within an hour, he had lost the lead entirely, in part because of tentative and poor putting. When Fowler rolled in a 28-foot birdie putt on the par-5 10th hole, McIlroy watched from the 10th fairway and knew he was now trailing by three strokes. Mickelson had passed him and held a two-stroke edge.
“The guys were lighting it up, and I wasn’t,” McIlroy said. “I was fully aware of what was going on. Standing in the 10th fairway, I wanted to just get a birdie to get some momentum.”
He was 284 yards from the hole and chose a 3-wood that he hoped to fly high and almost directly at the flag. “The shot I hit was about 30 feet lower than I intended to hit and about 15 yards to the left,” McIlroy said later with a laugh.
‘The ball bounced and rolled until it came to rest 7 feet from the hole. “I was lucky; I really was,” McIlroy said. “To win, sometimes you need a little luck. But that kick-started everything.”
McIlroy was the only player to reach the 10th green in two shots on Sunday and made the eagle putt to draw one shot behind Fowler.
The fierce competition continued unabated — Mickelson making a nearly impossible par save at the 12th and Stenson regaining a piece of the lead at the 13th, then giving it back with a botched short putt on the next hole. McIlroy missed a 6-foot birdie chance at the 12th, then made a 9-footer for birdie to tie Fowler and Mickelson for the lead.
The duck, dodge and charge continued until Stenson failed to capitalise on the easy birdie opportunity at the par-5 18th. On the 17th hole, McIlroy blasted out of a fairway bunker, left his ball 11 feet from the hole and made the putt for birdie and a two-shot lead.
Highly unusual moment
On the next hole, McIlroy did something highly unusual for tournament golf, let alone a major. He jogged ahead and joined Mickelson and Fowler, who had already hit their shots, on the 18th tee. McIlroy asked if he and his playing partner, Bernd Wiesberger, could join up and play the final hole as a foursome because of the enveloping darkness.
Any of the four golfers could have declared it was too hard to see and the tournament would have continued Monday. None came to that conclusion. “No way,” McIlroy said. “I wanted to win it today.”
After Mickelson and Fowler walked part of the way down the hole, McIlroy hit a driver just short of a water hazard. Then the group did play as a foursome. Mickelson almost chipped in for an eagle that would have tied him with McIlroy.
“It was really close, until it broke right at the end,” said Mickelson, whose biggest mistake was a bogey at the 16th hole. It is the second time Mickelson has finished second at the P.G.A. Championship. He has finished second at the United States Open six times.
Following Mickelson on the hole, Fowler, putting in near darkness, had his birdie putt lip out to drop him two strokes back. On the 18th hole, McIlroy hit his second shot in the greenside bunker.
“It was so dark, I was worried about my depth perception in the bunker,” McIlroy said. “So I decided to just chunk it out, take my two putts and got out of there.”
Nonetheless, he had to two-putt from 34 feet. McIlroy left himself an 18-inch final putt to seal the victory.
When rain bombarded the course early Sunday afternoon, there was standing water on seemingly every fairway, and some greens became little ponds.
Work crews used squeegees to thrust the accumulated rainwater into the course’s drainage areas.
After the sun emerged, much of the standing water receded. Play resumed at 2:44 p.m., and the tee time of the final pairing of McIlroy and Wiesberger was announced for 4:19. The hope was that the final duo could play in about four hours and beat the 8:43 sunset.
McIlroy’s final putt fell into the 18th hole at 8:43 p.m. (NYT)
Lefty can’t right horrors of 2014
Associated Press: Phil Mickelson wasn’t about to let a strong showing at the PGA Championship brighten the way he felt about this year.
Mickelson was part of a riveting four-man duel in the rain-delayed final round, but a costly bogey at the 16th denied him a chance to break his longest winless stretch since 2003. He closed with a 5-under 66 for a 15-under 269 total.
“I’ve got some regrouping to do these next three or four months,’’ Mickelson said Sunday, standing in the darkness of Valhalla after losing to McIlroy by a single shot. “I have some glaring areas in my game that I have to work on.’’
For Mickelson, it was an encouraging performance after a largely disappointing season. He hasn’t won since the 2013 British Open and wasn’t a factor in the first three majors. Now, it’s time for the 44-year-old to get to work. “I feel like if I’m able to continue to be strong and healthy and sharp in these areas of my game, I should have four or five good years,’’ he said. “These next three or four months will be critical for me making sure that I address the issues and that I’m ready to go in 2015.’’
Mickelson had a lengthy list of his most pressing concerns. “Short irons were terrible this year as a whole. It’s usually a strength, and I’ve got to get that back,’’ he said. Then Mickelson mentioned his driving, especially missing the fairway at the 16th and 17th holes. “Those two tee shots hurt. Those are things I’ve got to address. I’ve got to. I don’t mind being wild, but when you’ve got to get in the fairway, you’ve got to be able to do it.’’