Wiedmer: McIlroy is now golf's brightest star

Wiedmer: McIlroy is now golf's brightest star

August 11th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, holds up the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club on Aug. 10, 2014, in Louisville, Ky.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Could all this gnashing of teeth and nibbling of nails about the future of professional golf have been a tad bit of wasted energy and angst?

Even if a certain golfer of former greatness whose name momentarily escapes me is struggling to find his C game, much less his A game these days, has golf ever produced a better final round at a major than Sunday afternoon at the PGA Championship?

OK, so if you're old enough to remember the Sunday back nine of the Masters in 1975, Jack Nicklaus outdueling Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by a single stroke to collect his fifth green jacket, you might have an excellent argument.

But that doesn't mean it was better than what Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Co. combined to author atop Louisville, Ky.'s, majestic Valhalla on Sunday evening.

That McIlroy claimed his second major in three weeks for his fourth overall major at the tender age of 25 -- this one won with patience, pluck and panache rather than his usual bulldozer tactics -- only strengthens the belief that this may be a finish we will long remember.

Or as Nicklaus told CBS's Jim Nantz early in the tournament, "[McIlroy] has the moxie and the game. We could be talking 15, 20 majors before he's done."

And we certainly could. But however impressive four majors in 38 months may be at such a young age, it's still less than a quarter of the way to the Golden Bear's record 18. Considering the fact that the last guy to show such early promise actually reached 14 majors more than six years ago and is still stuck on 14 today, well, you can see the danger of getting ahead of yourself.

Yet this was also a side of McIlroy previously unseen. A scrappy side. A determined side. A cold-blooded killer side, as if he was the reason the Discovery Channel started its Shark Week on Sunday. He didn't cruise to victory in this one as has been his custom. After owning the lead heading into the final round, he had sputtered early following a 79-minute rain delay, at one point falling two shots behind.

But he kept plugging, kept hitting the prettiest long drives this side of the Pacific Coast Highway, kept giving himself a chance. Finally, on No. 10, he got an eagle. A birdie on 17 gave him a two-stroke lead. Despite standing on the edge of night, he finished it off with an easy par to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy, even catching the massive trophy's top before it hit the ground as it was about to be handed to him.

"I thought I showed a lot of guts today," McIlroy said.

Not that he was alone, which is what made this Bluegrass battle so special. At 5 p.m. there were 14 players within three strokes of the lead. At 6:30 you had three players tied for the lead -- Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson.

When Stenson fell back, McElroy joined the leaders. Then Fowler stumbled ever-so-slightly to make it the Mac Versus Mick Show. That Fowler wrapped up the majors by finishing fifth (Masters), second (U.S. Open), second (British Open) and third (PGA) shows that McElroy's toughest foe may soon be a Puma (Fowler's sponsor) rather than some aging striped cat.

Finally, of course, Mickelson did what he has too often done best -- thrill before spill. Tied for the lead on the 16th hole, his chip shot appeared ready to bounce into the hole for a birdie that would have moved him to the top of the leaderboard and likely created a roar throughout the Bluegrass to move the earth.

But the ball nicked the right lip of the cup, shot nine feet past and wound up becoming a bogey when Mickelson missed his par putt.

To Fowler's credit, he may have hit the guttiest shot of the final round when he hooked one over the trees on that same 16th hole from a parallel fairway to save par and stay within one, but he never again shared the lead.

Another reason to like Fowler's future? After this one ended, he said, "This is kind of the first one that hurts."

As any coach will tell you, until it hurts to lose more than it feels good to win, you'll never win the big ones.

But McIlroy did win, and by winning his first four majors by a total of 62-under par, he's now the leader in that category.

Moreover, he continues to do it with a seemingly large degree of class and character, though as we painfully learned a few years ago, such apparent decency can be deceiving.

Still, because officials rushed the final hole to completion due to darkness, sort of running McIlroy up the backs of Mickelson and Fowler, the winner said of the group in front of him, "They showed a lot of sportsmanship and class."

Later, when asked if he ever considered waiting until Monday to finish the final hole after landing in a green-side bunker, McIlroy added, "No. I just decided to chunk it out of there, take my two putts and run."

No whining about how hard it is to win these things. No reminding everyone he did this without his A game. Just a simple, heartfelt, "I didn't think in my wildest dreams that I'd ever have a summer like this."

No one ever expects to watch a Sunday final round like this. That's what's best about sports. But this also feels like something bigger, more lasting, more permanent, a change we can believe in.

"We have a shining star at sunset," said Nantz.

Or is it a new sunrise for professional golf?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com