Sunday, August 12, 2012

The PGA Championship -- Wrap-Up

On the morning of August 13, 1995, Ernie Els was poised to establish himself as the world's next great golfer. Els was only 25 years old, he had already won the 1994 U.S. Open, and he led the PGA Championship by three shots with only one round remaining. Very few golfers win two majors before they turn 26, and Els seemed poise to enter that select company. For three days, he had played spectacular golf, and teed off with a score a 16 under par. But then he shot a one-over par 72, watched his lead slip away, and didn't even make the playoff that ultimately decided the championship. Els went on to have a very solid career, but he has never won the PGA Championship and he is not going to be remembered as an immortal.

Four years later, Tiger Woods -- who was only 23 years old -- was tied for the lead with one round remaining in the PGA Championship. On a day when scores were generally high, Woods outdueled everyone -- holding off a late charge from a young Sergio Garcia to wrap up his second major tournament. Woods, of course, then went on to dominate golf for the next nine years and establish himself as an all-time great.

Today, Rory McIlroy -- the 23-year-old wunderkind from Northern Ireland who dominated the field at last year's U.S. Open -- found himself at a similar crossroads. After opening with a five-under par 67 on Thursday, McIlroy had struggled in high winds on Friday, shooting a 75 and falling two shots off the lead. But the winds had died down on Saturday, and McIlroy had posted four birdies on the front nine to take the lead at six-under. Now he was 27 holes from his second major -- and from re-asserting his claim to be the true future of golf.

McIlroy came through in spectacular fashion. He played one-under par on the back nine of his third round -- his three round total of 209 (67+75+67) left him three shots clear of his nearest challenger. And then he blew the field away with a blistering 66 in the last round. He ended up winning by eight shots -- the same margin by which he triumphed at Congressional last year.

McIlroy is clearly on a different level than everyone else right now. Eight-shot victories in major tournaments are extremely rare, and he already has two of them. Major tournament wins before the age of 24 are also rare, and he has two of those. (Since World War II, the only other men to win two majors before the age of 24 are Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, and Tiger Woods). He's not as consistent as Tiger was at the same age -- this year, he tied for 40th at the Masters, missed the cut at the U.S. Open, and tied for 60th at the British Open. He also doesn't have Woods's steely ruthlessness -- I can't imagine the young Tiger collapsing like McIlroy did at last year's Masters or complaining about the wind the way McIlroy does. But when he's on, his ability to dominate a strong field is very much the equal of Tiger's in his prime. That ability to post scores in big tournaments that your competitors have no hope of matching is the ultimate test of golfing greatness, and he is the only golfer since Woods to show that ability.

And so, after a fairly strange year of major tournaments, McIlroy has finally re-established order in the game. Golf fans will still yell "You the man" and almost everyone who hits a big shot. But for now, Rory McIlroy really is the man.

1. R. McIlroy (NIR): -13 (67+75+67+66=275)

2. D. Lynn (ENG): -5 (73+74+68+68=283)

T3. K. Bradley: -4 (68+77+71+68=284)
T3. C. Pettersson (SWE): -4 (66+74+72+72=284)
T3. I. Poulter (ENG): -4 (70+71+74+69=284)
T3. J. Rose (ENG): -4 (69+79+70+66=284)

T7. B. Adams: -3 (71+72+75+67=285)
T7. J. Donaldson (WAL): -3 (69+73+73+70=285)
T7. P. Hanson (SWE): -3 (69+75+70+71=285)
T7. S. Stricker: -3 (74+73+67+72=285)

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