John Clay: McIlroy ushering in his own 'Tiger-esque era'

LOUISVILLE — It was the turn at the 10th tee and Rory McIlroy looked flat-out gassed, as you might expect a mere mortal to be from the three-week grind of winning the British Open and winning the Bridgestone and leading heading into the final round of this 96th PGA Championship.

Now McIlroy had slipped three shots back on a leaderboard so crowded with shot-making stars, surely there was no way the 25-year-old Irishman could find his way back up the muddy hill and beat both the big names and the gathering darkness at the Valhalla Golf Club.

McIlroy hit an ordinary tee shot on the par-4 10th, ordinary for him anyway. But then he hit the shot of a tournament filled with great shots — "a lucky shot," he called it — a low but powerful 284-yard masterpiece that sliced through the heavy, wet air and landed within seven feet of the hole, pin-high.

One perfect putt later came the game-changing eagle, and when it was all said and done, the PGA could have handed him the Wanamaker Trophy right then.

They had to wait until 8:43 p.m. to make it official (and he nearly dropped the trophy, by the way.) That was one minute before the official sundown and at the end of the wildest and most entertaining golf tournament, major or otherwise, since they first started hitting that little dimpled ball around with a stick.

The darkness didn't really matter, anyway, for what was most important was clear for all to see. With now four major victories — two back-to-back — Rory McIlroy is now officially the brightest light in golf.

"You know, it's beginning to look a little Tiger-esque I suppose," Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ said earlier in the day. "I said to the boys at The Open, I didn't think we were going to see a 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."

Sunday, McIlroy beat Phil Mickelson, the five-time major winner who was brilliant Sunday while shooting a 66, but needed a 65.

He beat Rickie Fowler, perhaps the game's second-hottest player, who ended up with a top 10 finish in every 2014 major without anything to put in his trophy case.

McIlroy also survived the mental and physical toll that had to come from being the hunted for three straight weeks until suddenly, on Sunday's back nine, he became the hunter.

A one-hour, 51-minute rain delay pushed back McIlroy's tee time from 2:55 to 4:19, and on the front nine he was anything but sharp.

"For the first five or six holes I felt flat," he admitted later.

He bogeyed the third hole to fall back to -12 and into a four-way tie. When he bogeyed six he was -11 and three back of Fowler. A birdie on seven got him back to -12, but by that time Fowler was still three shots ahead.

Then McIlroy hit his best shot when his best shot was required, which is exactly what champions do.

"That was the big turning point of the tournament," McIlroy said in the winning press conference. "From there, I kicked on and played some great golf down the stretch."

McIlroy birdied 13 to go to -15 then held tight while those ahead of him — directly ahead of him, it turned out, as the quick pace to try and complete the tournament before nightfall allowed McIlroy to play directly behind Fowler and Mickelson — faltered just enough.

Finally, on 17, McIlroy slammed the door with a marvelous bunker shot that set up a killer birdie putt.

"To win it in this fashion, to beat Phil, who has won five majors, on the back nine on a Sunday means a lot," McIlroy said.

"He's better than everyone else right now," said a disappointed Mickelson. "Yeah, he's good. He's really good."

McIlroy was ahead and won and was behind and won, all in the same tournament.

In the end, McIlroy was so good, he even beat the dark.

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