McIlroy's win making golf relevant

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Either you're in or you're out. Because if what happened here during the final round of the Mud Bowl, er, PGA Championship, doesn't convince you that golf can survive with or without Tiger Woods, then nothing will.

This was the best major of the year, the best PGA Championship in, well, decades, and the best majors drama production we've seen since "Mickelson and Muirfield -- A 2013 Love Story," or "Limping In San Diego -- Tiger and the 2008 U.S. Open."

Excuse me, I'm going to need a moment ...

It isn't every day that you watch somebody win a Claret Jug in July and a Wanamaker Trophy in August. It isn't every day that you see a guy win his fourth career major. Or have an era named after him.

But that's what Rory McIlroy, all 25 years of him, has done in the past 22 days. He has redefined the way we should look at pro golf. He has single-handedly freed the sport from inertia.

"To be the face of golf -- or one of the faces of golf -- it's a big responsibility," said McIlroy. "But at the same time, I feel like I'm up to the task of handling it well."

Admittedly he got an assist from the PGA Championship, a major that rarely gets top billing. If the Masters, U.S. Open and the Open Championship are the filet mignons of the majors, the PGA Championship is often considered the Bearnaise sauce.

Not Sunday, it wasn't. This was a PGA Championship final round that had everything: Amazon jungle rainfall, delays, birdies, eagles, lead changes, swamp butt, more birdies and eagles, darkness and then controversy.

Most of all it had McIlroy, who has won his four majors in the past three years and two in a single season. He's 13 years younger than Woods, who is stuck on 14 majors, and nearly 50 years younger than the great Jack Nicklaus, who won his 18th and final major in 1986. In other words, he has a chance to finish ahead of both legends.

McIlroy isn't just collecting trophies; he's making golf relevant again. Or he should be.

He wins big. He wins small. He wins here. He wins over there. He wins sublimely. He wins boringly. But he wins. And if Woods and Nicklaus have proved anything over the years, winning matters.

"It's beginning to look a little Tiger-esque, I suppose," said fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell. "I said to [reporters] at the Open, 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 guess you could say -- I'm not eating my words, but I'm certainly starting to chew on them right now."

Chew on these numbers: McIlroy has won four majors before his 26th birthday.

"So it's a case of how the guy continues to motivate himself," said McDowell. "You don't know what the number is. It's however many he wants, you know. He'll win as many majors as he wants -- within reason."

There is a humility to McIlroy, an accessibility. He has committed his share of off-course sins, but immediately owned them. He has just the right amount of edge. And like Woods, Nicklaus and the man he defeated by 1 shot Sunday -- Phil Mickelson -- he does things that defy physics and explanation.

Did you see his second shot on the par-5 10th hole? He hit his 3-wood 284 yards to 7 feet, 4 inches -- the only player Sunday to reach the 586-yard hole in two. Eagle.

Before that, McIlroy, the 54-hole leader, was beginning to fade slightly from view. But the eagle moved him from 3 back to 1 back of then-leader Rickie Fowler. Three holes later he would be tied for the lead. Four holes after that, he'd own a 2-shot advantage.

McIlroy is now in a race against legacies. That's enthralling stuff. But so was Sunday's race against the darkness of a Louisville night.

The PGA of America couldn't do anything about the early afternoon rains that turned Valhalla Golf Club's fairways into rivers and the bunkers into wading ponds. However, it could have done something about its starting times, but didn't. Instead, the nearly two-hour rain delay caused a controversial finish when McIlroy and playing partner Bernd Wiesberger, the final pairing of the day, speed-golfed into Fowler and Mickelson on the 18th hole.

Had the tee times been moved up an hour, there wouldn't have been this silliness. It made for great TV, but the PGA of America's miscalculation put Fowler, Mickelson and McIlroy in an awkward and unfair position.

And yet, Mickelson almost chipped in for eagle on the par-5 18th. And McIlroy hit his second shot into a greenside bunker, and left his third shot 34 feet from the pin. If he doesn't two-putt, there's a Monday playoff.

And even more drama.

This was a PGA Championship -- and a winner -- that should make you a believer in the future of the game. The leaderboard was a gift from the heavens. There were so many quality storylines that you needed a spreadsheet to keep track.

Mickelson could have won his sixth major. Fowler and Henrik Stenson, who finished 2 shots behind, could have won their first.

Forty-four-year-old Ernie Els shot a 6-under-par 65 and squeezed his way into the conversation.

There were Ryder Cup implications.

There was everything. And there will be more.

Can April come fast enough? McIlroy will be going for the career Grand Slam when he arrives at Augusta National next year. Woods will presumably be healthy. Mickelson experiences a golf renaissance every time he drives down Magnolia Lane. Bubba Watson will be going for his second consecutive green jacket and his third in four years.

These are good times for golf. Even if everyone doesn't realize it yet.