It’s easy to forget there were missteps.
Like on No. 3 during a stormy Saturday, for example, when Rory McIlroy’s tee shot rattled around in a cut-off limb hanging off a dead oak tree and stayed there, some eight feet above the ground. He and a search party had been scouring the high grasses frantically until a television crewmember broke the news. He retrieved his ball, declared an unplayable, wedged onto the green from 70 yards and saved a brilliant par.
Then there was the scene on the 16th hole during Sunday’s final round, when a club nearly came flying out of McIlroy’s hands as he pulled a shot left into a massive bunker. The way the Northern Irishman contorted his body belied the comfort of the moment, even if it was the 94th PGA Championship. And while greenside bunkers usually are not bad landing areas for second shots, the depth and scale of this one left a long, awkward recovery to a small green.
McIlroy was well in front of the field on the final day at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, and while this wasn’t completely foreign, even for a major — he’d lapped the field by eight strokes during the U.S. Open just 14 months before at Congressional Country Club — it felt different. Unlike his previous major victory, which seemed to introduce McIlroy as a potential heir, a convincing win here would cement his royalty.
Now in the deep bunker, perhaps he was displaying a crack in the armor, an opportunity not for those in pursuit to necessarily catch him, but simply to make things respectable.
Any crisis was averted, however, when McIlroy calmly splashed the sand and stuck a shot to inside eight feet, leaving a par putt that he drained with supreme confidence.
There would be no mistaking this; as much as Tiger Woods had rooted himself as the supreme ruler of professional golf, the cheering masses now had a prince.
Rory was for real.
Certainly, there were signs McIlroy was set to become a dominant force prior to Kiawah, but for every hot stretch — like a victory at the 2012 Honda Classic, where he held off Tiger Woods — there was the cold Rory McIlroy, missing three cuts in four starts in the middle of the year, including his U.S. Open defense at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
And then there was the hot-and-cold Rory, one who fired an opening-round, 3-under 67 in the Open Championship, only to fade to a T-60 finish. But he followed it up with a T-5 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, with closing rounds of 67-67-68.
It was tough to get a handle on just which McIlroy might be present that week.
“There were a few goals I set myself early at the start of the year, which I achieved: getting to No. 1 in the world, and playing well, winning a tournament early,” he said on the eve of 2012’s final major.
“And then the second half of the season has been – it’s still been pretty good. It’s been a little bit more of a struggle. I feel like I’m playing pretty well, so, I mean, if I had to give my season a grade to this point, I’d probably give it a B.”
But that grade was about to jump.
McIlroy knew Mother Nature was going easy on players in the first round of the PGA Championship and he needed to make the most of her mercy. He did so with an easy 5-under 67 that showed off a skill set that hadn’t been showing its full potential in previous months.
He missed just three greens and four fairways in his bogey-free tour of the Ocean Course. All his birdies came on putts of 15 feet or less. “It’s a great score to build on,” McIlroy said.
There was little wind and rains early in the week softened the layout, taking the bite out of its then-record-setting length.
“It’s a little bit softer, so that makes the fairways wider, and the wind really hasn’t blown, and the greens are still a little bit soft,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ve seen it about as easy as it can get this morning.”
The Ocean Course played at 7,668 yards, just eight yards off its maximum. McIlroy said the layout didn’t feel long, though, in that opening round. Nothing less than 8,000 yards would, he added. Soft fairways allowed McIlroy to rely on driver most of the day.
His day started with a birdie at the 10th hole, his first, after hitting a sand wedge to 12 feet. He hit 3-iron to 12 feet on the 249-yard, par-3 14th hole to get to 2 under par. He got up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 16th and made the turn in 3-under 33. He two-putted the par-5 second hole for birdie after hitting 5-wood to 40 feet, then made his final birdie of the day when he hit pitching wedge to 15 feet on No. 6. As McIlroy said, they were five “solid” birdies.
“I’m expecting this to be the best day of the week,” McIlroy said. “I think everyone is. … It’s just something that you’re going to have to deal with, and I’m just happy that I got off to a great start.”
McIlroy had famously has struggled at the Pete Dye-designed TPC Sawgrass, the Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, site of the Players Championship, where odd angles make for uncomfortable tee shots. Kiawah Island also is a Dye design, though the courses’ similarities are few. The Ocean Course is more reminiscent of another Dye design that hosted a recent PGA Championship, Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin, where McIlroy finished third two years before.
The majors had been a struggle for McIlroy that season, though. A 40th-place finish at Augusta National was his best of the year prior to Kiawah. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open and tied for 60th at the Open Championship.
“This is the last chance you have to put your name on a piece of silver that will be remembered forever,” McIlroy said.
But a fifth-place finish at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was his best since a runner-up showing at the Wells Fargo Championship in May. He credited his putting instructor, Dave Stockton, who told McIlroy to smile more on the course. He also changed his practice habits.
“I was working very hard on technical stuff for the last few weeks, and then a slight mental adjustment as well,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I was hitting too many balls on the range. I just needed to go out there and play a bit more on the course and see shots.”
On Saturday, despite a bogey at the par-4 ninth, McIlroy still managed to blister the Ocean Course’s front nine in 32 shots, rocketing to the top of the leaderboard next to Vijay Singh, a man more than twice his age.
Three months past his 23rd birthday, a win by McIlroy would make him younger than Tiger Woods was when he captured his second major (the 1999 PGA, at 23 years, 7 months). But play was suspended midway through Saturday’s third round, and there was plenty of work to be done before any coronation.
“I’m going into the final day of the final major of the season tied for the lead, so I mean, I can’t ask for much more,” said McIlroy, who was 6 under, deadlocked with Singh and a single shot ahead of Adam Scott. “So, you know, I don’t care if it’s going to be 27 holes, 18 holes, 36 holes . . . I’m just happy to be going in there in a good position.”
Woods slid backward on Saturday (playing his first eight holes in 4 over), and that’s when McIlroy made a move. That’s not to say the nine holes he played were devoid of ample drama.
He rolled in a nice right-to-left curler for birdie at the first hole, then experienced two bizarre holes. At the par-5 second, he had 275 yards to the green and hit 5-wood, but immediately lost track of the shot. His initial reaction was one of concern.
“It came off a little higher than I anticipated, and I had no idea,” McIlroy said later. “I had to turn and ask JP (Fitzgerald, his caddie) where the ball was.”
His ball ended up in the center of the green, setting up a second consecutive birdie.
With his late-afternoon finish Saturday, he planned to return to the posh home he and his camp have rented for the week on the island, put his feet up and relax.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve come in here with a little bit of confidence from the way I played last week. It’s just been nice to take that into this week and show it out on the golf course. You know, there’s still a lot of guys with a chance to win going into tomorrow – 27 holes left, you’ve still got a long way to go.
“I’ve put myself in a nice position going into tomorrow. And as I said here on Wednesday, that’s all I really wanted to do. It should be exciting.”
On Sunday, McIlroy was one of more than two dozen players who had to return to the course to finish their third round.
This was where he took charge, using birdies on Nos. 15 and 16 and a big par save on the 17th to close with a 67. That put McIlroy in front by three strokes and gave him the peace of mind to take a nap before the final round.
He went for the jugular soon after, burying a wedge from wood chips on the second hole to inside six feet and converting the birdie putt.
No. 3 is a fascinating little hole, with the chief issue being a top-hat green protected by two live oaks 35 yards short, right smack in the middle of the widest fairway on the course. Since the tees were moved up to make this a true risk-reward, McIlroy’s smooth drive led to a flip wedge that he got within 15 feet.
He made the putt and never looked back, finishing with a 66, his best round of the week when it seemed the pressure would have him wound the tightest.
McIlroy finished 13 under for the week, eight strokes ahead of Englishman David Lynn and nine ahead of a quarter that included Justin Rose and Ian Poulter.
“It was a great round of golf. I’m speechless,” McIlroy said. “It’s just been incredible. I had a good feeling about it at the start. I never imagined I’d do this.”
He went on to win two more majors in 2014 — the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla — and has finished in the top 10 at 22 total majors, counting his four titles.
And what about his return to see Kiawah as a major venue once again? McIlroy sees the significance.
“It will also be my own, personal defense, after a nine-year interval, of a title that meant so much to the 23-year-old me,” he said recently. “And now that I feel I have evolved and matured as a golfer, I will be more likely to give more attention to the old nuances and subtle changes made to The Ocean Course in the intervening years.
“I don’t think I will ever say I have mastered any of Pete Dye’s courses — I’m just happy to keep learning and taking new experiences from each visit.”