Sport | Rory roars to victory at Valhalla
Rory McIlroy’s assault on the pinnacle of the golfing world continued with a sensational third straight victory and his fourth major championship at the USPGA Championship this weekend. Enjoying a purple patch of form, with victories already accumulated at last month’s Open Championship, alongside McIlroy’s first World Golf Championship trophy, claimed at Firestone last week, the Northern Irishman moved south to Kentucky to claim his second Wanamaker Trophy in the most enthralling and dramatic fashion.
The PGA of America returned to the Kentucky Bluegrass of Valhalla Golf Club for this installment of the PGA Championship, a venue steeped in acclaim and melodrama. During its previous ventures here playoffs have been aplenty, as seen in 1996 and famously in 2000 when Woods continued his tiger slam, prevailing over Bob May. Valhalla’s reputation has only been enhanced by Tom Watson’s playoff victory here at the 2011 Seniors PGA and of course the 2008 Ryder Cup where a vociferous and jingoistic crowd saw Azinger’s America to victory. Such is the popularity of this course it is little surprise the PGA of America returned to such an iconic venue only improved by some tinkering by one Mr Jack Nicklaus.
The early running on Thursday was set by England’s Lee Westwood, still seeking that elusive first major at 41, which whilst still evasive did not mean he left completely empty handed. A welcome return to form, coupled with a 63 at Akron last week enhances his chance of a Ryder Cup call up at Gleneagles next month. American’s Kevin Chappell and Ryan Palmer shared the lead but McIlroy was already lurking with a five-under 66, including four straight birdies on the back nine after a disastrous double bogey at 10. Come Friday evening Tiger Woods, injured at the Bridgestone the preceding week, had missed his fourth major cut, leaving his Ryder Cup aspirations in jeopardy, while reigning champion Jason Dufner was also forced to withdraw through his own injury ailments. However McIlroy had already assumed his now accustomed spot atop the leaderboard with ever solid Jim Furyk and young Australian pretender Jason Day just behind him.
Saturday is moving day and the galleries in Kentucky were in for a treat as McIlroy wasn’t able to shake off the field behind him, so typical of his previous major victories and was instead left struggling to keep his round from collapsing. A wayward drive on the shortened fourth found a creek and poor chipping on 11 alongside a poor approach a hole later put McIlroy on the rocks but he showed his fighting qualities to stay afloat. He rallied down the stretch, three birdies during the last four seeing the Northern Irishman snatch the clubhouse lead on twelve under. Yet more protagonists entered the fray on Saturday evening. Phil Mickelson failed to allow two straight bogeys to derail his efforts for a second PGA title with three straight birdies coming home, to the delight of the Kentucky faithful, finishing on ten under. Meanwhile unheralded Austrian Bernd Wiesberger almost eagled the seventeenth, settling his Saturday scorecard just one behind McIlroy. Rickie Fowler, who finished top 5 in the years preceding three majors was also lurking just behind, alongside Scandinavian duo Henrik Stenson and Mikko Ilonen.
Louisville, Kentucky, so revered for the Kentucky Derby hosted nearby at Churchill Downs was treated to a four horse race down the stretch on Sunday evening. Five different players held the lead at various intervals on Sunday, the most since six different participants shared the lead in Charl Schwartzel’s Masters victory of 2011 (ironically it was Rory McIlroy, who led at Augusta that afternoon before a meltdown scuppered his chances).
Before the leaders teed off a deluge threatened to cancel the day’s play, but the rainstorm abated in time for a full allotment of play, softening the already saturated course further. Again McIlroy faced difficulties on his front nine, and by the turn had lost his one stroke advantage, albeit less due to his own profligacy than the enchanting golf played ahead of him from the American duo of Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson. Lefty Henrik Stenson, so short of form in 2014, drained a birdie from downtown on the first and hit the turn in just 31 shots and took a mere 30 on the front nine. Rickie Fowler, often sighted as an underachiever in recent years, has been resurgent after the arrival of new swing coach Butch Harmon; he chipped in on five before a sliding thirty footer on ten left clear air between himself, Mickelson and McIlroy who endured another lacklustre front nine. Such an aggressive chase of the leader risked ending McIlroy’s week in disappointment but he reminded us of his major credentials with a courageous rallying act.
The moment McIlroy hit the stretch his mishit three wood from 280 yards fortunately rested seven feet from the pin and after slamming in an eagle putt he never looked back. McIlroy birdied the signature 13th and 17th whilst Fowler, Mickelson and Stenson all made needless bogeys, despite some plucky and valiant scrambling to stay in contention. The preceding rain delay meant the eighteenth was played in near darkness and in a sporting gesture, almost secure in the knowledge their challenges had elapsed, Fowler and Mickelson allowed McIlroy to play the last alongside them to avoid a Monday finish. So intrepid throughout the week, Fowler and Mickelson both saw long and desperate eagle opportunities slide by, but they played their part in a fabulous and fluctuating final day. McIlroy was left to putt out in the gloom to claim a fourth major, at just twenty-five years old. The FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup can’t come quick enough for this starlet and now the golfing world waits until April to see if McIlroy can achieve a career Grand Slam. He certainly reminded reporters that he is already counting down the days.
Featured image: BBC