It never ceases to amaze how far someone can progress in the space of a year but Rory McIlroy, 12 months after admitting to feeling ‘brain dead’ on the course at the Open Championship,
It never ceases to amaze how far someone can progress in the space of a year but Rory McIlroy, 12 months after admitting to feeling ‘brain dead’ on the course at the Open Championship, has provided definitive proof that resilience is the insignia of a true champion.
Having taken his game to astonishing new heights, the path is now clear for the Northern Irishman to become one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.
After claiming the PGA Championship at Valhalla on Sunday, McIlroy has completed a dream summer which has propelled him to within touching distance of the game’s immortal figures.
Confident under pressure
His fourth major title now means that he is behind only Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo as Europe’s most decorated players. Continuing the theme of lofty company, he joins Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, inarguably the game’s greatest ever champions, as the only men to win a quartet of golf’s greatest prizes by the age of 25.
Nobody has ever doubted McIlroy’s immense natural talent or his potential to thrive on the grandest of stages, but after a tumultuous 2013 season when he failed to win on either the PGA or European tour, many observers believed he was shrivelling under the enormous expectations everyone had for him.
McIlroy salvaged 2013 with an impressive victory in the Australian Open and has now blazed trail so hot, it makes a mockery of all that commentary and criticism in 2013.
Through the Open Championship, Bridgestone Invitational and PGA triumphs in the space of a glorious four weeks, McIlroy has rewritten the scope of his potential- he can now seriously start thinking about catching Woods and Nicklaus’ major hauls of 14 and 18 respectively.
Further evidence of how highly he is regarded by his peers came when just last week, Nicklaus himself said he believed McIlroy could reach “15 or 20” major championships by the time his career is finished.
From the Ryder Cup to the Green Jacket
Completing a career slam looks to be a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ and may come his way as soon as next April when he sets about claiming the ultimate achievement in golf at Augusta’s hallowed fairways. McIlroy is pragmatic and has learnt how to take major success in his stride, but deep down he will know that aspirations to become Europe’s most successful player ever are entirely legitimate and realistic.
What stood out on Sunday in the shadowy surroundings of Valhalla was not that he had won once again; it was how he had won. His three previous major triumphs all came by and large by spread-eagling the field and blowing the competition away, leaving the championships at his mercy.
However, on Sunday night he was pursued by three of the greatest players in the game today, Stenson, Mickelson and Fowler, and stemmed their rising tide of birdies to prevail in a dramatic and thrilling finale. McIlroy’s heart, determination and resilience became a key fixture of the week, when mistakes were eradicated with flushes of birdies.
During his opening round on Thursday, he dropped three shots in two holes and looked as though he may have fallen out of the reckoning but he responded brilliantly with five birdies in seven holes to catapult himself back into contention.
The time is now
He looked to be struggling in the heat of battle during the early stages of Sunday, slumping to +2 for his final round and listening to the roars of the rousing Kentucky masses as Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler surged to the forefront with a birdie barrage.
McIlroy, showing that he was relishing the prospects of a shootout, birdied the 7th and cracked a stunning 3-wood to within eight feet at the 10th setting up a chance for an eagle. He duly converted and from there, he looked in total control. As the round drew closer to a finish, McIlroy looked increasingly comfortable with both the advances of Mickelson, Fowler and Stenson, and his game.
A birdie at 13 unleashed a furious fist pump and he rounded off three steady pars before sticking his approach from the fairway bunker at the 17th pin-high and sank the putt. That birdie on the penultimate hole of the contest effectively killed off the challenge of Mickelson and Fowler and left the stage clear for McIlroy to lift the Wanamaker trophy.
What the world number one can now achieve is seemingly limitless, with a Fed Ex Cup play-off series to come before leading the European Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles in September. The comparison to Woods and Nicklaus may now never go away, but that is because he is truly deserving of such an assessment.
The era of Tiger has fully disintegrated. The time for Rory to dominate is now.