McIlroy shows grit in PGA win

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- This one was never about talent, even if Rory McIlroy could stretch his from tee to green on the longest par-5s in the world. He showed off his immense skill and athleticism by blowing away the fields in his first two major victories, and in controlling the Open Championship three weeks back as if he had all of Hoylake on a puppeteer's string.

But this? Major No. 4 at age 25? Erasing a three-stroke deficit on the back nine to win the PGA Championship in the dark, a minute after sundown, pumping his fists and releasing a primal scream that surged from his toes as the flashing camera lights bounced off him on the Valhalla stage?

This was a devastating punch thrown in Muhammad Ali's backyard, off the ropes and into history. McIlroy would've made the Louisville Lip proud with his act, too, backing away from his final putt Sunday to search the crowd for his father and coach, to bask in his own glory, and then to talk a little trash to boot.

"To win it in this fashion and this style," McIlroy said after his one-shot victory over Phil Mickelson, "it means a lot. It means that I know that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind. I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a major and come out on top.

"Phil Mickelson, the second best player ... in this generation, to be able to beat him on the back nine on a Sunday, it's great to have in the memory bank and great to have in the locker going forward."

As the successor to Tiger Woods, a champion who has made a lifelong mission out of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record, McIlroy wasn't going with his standard let's-take-this-one-trophy-at-a-time approach. He was high on life after surviving an event that felt more like a triathlon than a good walk unspoiled, an event that might as well have been held in a Brazilian rain forest.

McIlroy spoke of winning the career Grand Slam next April at Augusta National -- OK, he brought that up at Royal Liverpool, too. But he also said Sunday he was now "trying to become the most successful European player ever."

That was a new one.

"And hopefully in time, if I can do that," McIlroy added, "then I can move on and set different goals."

Like someday chasing down Woods at 14 and Nicklaus at 18. Before Sunday night, McIlroy had avoided such hints like he would a greenside bunker.

But young Rory was in the mood to count on this occasion, whether it was the days until the first round of the Masters or the majors won by guys he has either already hurdled or already targeted. On the quest to become the best European of them all, McIlroy brought up Nick Faldo's six and Seve Ballesteros' five. On the non-Euro front, he reminded that his four make him "level with Ernie [Els], level with Raymond Floyd."

The kid had just prevailed in a butt-ugly streetfight, and he could barely contain himself. Entering the day with a one-shot lead, burdened by a long rain delay, McIlroy admitted he was flat on the first half dozen holes. The physical and mental grind of winning at Hoylake and again at Firestone had worn him down, at least until he gave himself this pep talk:

"There's only 12 holes left in this thing. You just have to try and put everything into it."

McIlroy would shoot 5-under over those 12 holes. Everything changed for him on the par-5 10th fairway with a 3-wood in his hands, 284 yards from pay dirt and down three strokes to Rickie Fowler and two to Mickelson and Henrik Stenson. McIlroy struck his shot 30 feet lower than he intended it, and about 15 yards left of where he was aiming it. The ball came to rest seven feet from the hole. The eagle had landed.

"It was lucky," McIlroy said.

It's better to be lucky and good.

"Better than everyone else right now," is how Mickelson described the winner. "Yeah, he's good. Really good." McIlroy pumped his right fist hard after draining his birdie putt on the 13th, and kept his cool despite constantly waiting on the Mickelson-Fowler group ahead. Despite his standing as a lousy fairway bunker player, McIlroy rushed his shot out of one on the 17th because the gathering darkness spooked him.

One way or another, he wanted to complete the round. He didn't think about the consequences of failure before hitting his brilliant shot from the sand that all but sealed it.

The tournament turned weird on the 72nd hole, where Mickelson and Fowler graciously allowed McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger to hit their tee shots while Phil and Rickie headed toward their own drives. But Phil and Rickie, good buds, weren't happy campers around the green when McIlroy and Wiesberger decided to launch their second shots before Phil and Rickie hit their thirds.

None of it mattered in the end. McIlroy nearly sent a drive he couldn't see into the water -- "Only one yard from the edge," said his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald -- and then put his next shot into a greenside bunker. McIlroy wasn't sweating the small stuff; he figured that neither Mickelson nor Fowler would eagle the hole (he was right, even if Lefty came damn close), and that the par he eventually managed would do the job.

"It was all heart coming down the stretch," Fitzgerald said of his man.

McIlroy wanted to shoot 30 on the back for 18-under, and settled for a 32 and a sum of 16-under. Only the numbers didn't really matter, not after McIlroy endured the rain and the mud, and the early roars for Mickelson and Fowler.

When he'd officially won at 8:43 p.m., won a major for the second time this year on courses where Woods had seized big ones in the past, McIlroy bear-hugged his Dublin-born caddie and his old man Gerry.

"He's a killer," the fellow Irishman and CBS analyst David Feherty told Gerry McIlroy of his son. "He's a [expletive] killer."

They needed a bank of floodlights for the ceremony on the green. Outside the locker room, in the dark, someone asked Fitzgerald if he now owned the easiest job in golf.

"I don't know about the easiest," he said. "But the best certainly."

It's the best caddie's job, anyway, because Rory McIlroy didn't win Sunday on his enormous God-given talent. He won on blood and guts, and that's really bad news for the rest of the field at Augusta and beyond.