LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rory McIlroy won this soggy SqueeGA Championship in the dark, dropping his final putt at 8:43 p.m. – one minute past sunset on a very long Sunday. He won his second consecutive major by playing hurry-up golf, joining the group in front of him off the 18th tee in one of the oddest endings to a major anyone has ever seen. He won his fourth career major with a lucky laser of a 3-wood on the 10th hole – a mishit that worked out and might have been the only shot all weekend to roll an appreciable distance at waterlogged Valhalla Golf Club.
But in a meaningful way McIlroy also won this tourney hours earlier, when the whole thing was going to hell all around him. A guy with a penchant for winning pretty had to regroup and become a tough mudder.
Go back to 5:20 Sunday afternoon, when Rory walked into a caldron at the sixth tee.
It was miserably humid, and there was nothing to do. The group in front of him, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, were still there, waiting to tee off as waterlogged Valhalla backed up and quite literally bogged down. The chances of finishing this storm-tormented PGA Championship tournament Sunday seemed to be slipping away with every delay. For about 10 minutes, two groups uneasily shared the same space.
In that awkward setting, McIlroy avoided making eye contact with his competitors and sat down on a drink cooler on the opposite side of the tee box – in effect going to a neutral corner. Mickelson and Fowler chatted away, looking far more comfortable … with good reason.
At that point, the vaunted front-running Irishman had given up his fourth-round lead – he was over par for the day, on a course that was handing out birdies like Halloween candy. While he was off to a stumbling start, he’d heard a succession of roars ringing in his ears: Mickelson and Fowler were tearing it up, between them recording four birdies in the first five holes, exchanging fist bumps, having a ball. When McIlroy came to the holes that dynamic tandem had left, it seemed like he’d arrived precisely when a party was ending. You could almost feel the buzz dying.
In the steamy back corner of the course, where the breeze was dead and the air was thick and the perspiration was rolling in rivers, Rory was sweating out some adversity. After a breathtakingly successful but ultimately stressful month, the burden of being golf’s leading man was weighing on him right there.
"Through the first five or six holes today, I felt a little flat," he said later, the Wanamaker Trophy sitting next to him. "I really needed to dig deep and say, 'There's only 12 more holes left in this thing and you just have to try and put everything into it.' To be up there with the lead week-in and week-out and trying to win these big golf tournaments, it's tough mentally and physically."
The 25-year-old Irishman had won big and won easy in his three previous major victories. This was going to be different.
So in that moment, McIlroy tried to shrink the size of the challenge. Don't think about winning three tourneys in a row or back-to-back majors or being The Man of the sport. Just try to string together a few good shots.
"Just make one birdie," he told himself.
He got that birdie on the par-5 seventh hole, getting up and down with a deft chip. Even though Mickelson and Fowler were still rolling up ahead, that moment at least stopped the bleeding for McIlroy and breathed life into his game.
Then, a few minutes later, he went to the par-5 10th hole. From the fairway he heard yet another roar – a Fowler birdie. Suddenly McIlroy was three back, when he plucked a 3-wood from his bag and hit the shot of the tournament.
Not that it went according to plan.
"The ball flight was probably around 30 feet lower than I intended," he admitted. "And the line of the shot was probably around 15 yards left of where I intended. It was lucky, it really was. You need a little bit of luck in major championships to win and that was my lucky break."
The low screamer hit and rolled like this was the British Open or something, tracking to within seven feet of the pin. Nobody all day had reached that green in two until then. McIlroy took advantage of the opportunity by rolling in the eagle putt, and suddenly it was again game on. Rory was in a pitched battle with Mickelson, Fowler and Henrik Stenson.
Sunday back-nine pressure can turn even a vulnerable course into a challenge, and that was reflected in the closing scores for those three men: 36 for Mickelson and Fowler, 35 for Stenson. McIlroy? He dropped a 32 on the bunch, adding birdies on 13 and 17 to that eagle. Instead of waltzing through a low-pressure back nine, he showed a different kind of resolve and tenacity.
But even as he revived his struggling round, this PGA appeared destined for a Monday finish. With daylight vanishing, McIlroy twice teed off into the group ahead of him – both times with their blessing. He did it first on No. 16, when Fowler was dithering over a wayward tee shot, and he did it again on No. 18. That was followed by the even more unusual closing sequence of hitting his second shot on the par-5 hole before Mickelson and Fowler had gotten to the green and finished their round.
"The guys let us play up with our drives, and they didn't need to do that," McIlroy said. "They could have just left us on the tee box there and played normally, but they showed a lot of class and a lot of sportsmanship by doing that."
Still, Rory's drive into the gloaming nearly landed in the pond to the right of the fairway – even though he couldn't see it amid the gathering dusk. With a two-shot lead, he was able to safely get home with par to beat Mickelson by a stroke and give greater credence to the Era of Rory talk that has been building for the past month.
Four majors at age 25 is an accomplishment of historic significance. The only two golfers who have won that many faster are Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, which will prompt some to start guessing whether McIlroy – not Tiger – is the guy who can take down Jack's record total of 18.
But after watching Woods' once-feasible quest turn into a painful long shot, McIlroy is wisely trying to keep his goals smaller.
"I think the next two realistic goals are the career grand slam [he lacks only a Masters green jacket] and trying to become the most successful European player ever," McIlroy said. "Nick Faldo has six [majors]. Seve [Ballesteros] has five. … Hopefully, when I achieve those, I can start to think about other things."
For now, just winning this tournament the hard way is enough to cherish. It showed a new side of Rory McIlroy – a tough mudder side.