KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – As golf's newest megastar walked slowly towards him, an 8-year-old named Bennett ambled up a tree.
The boy, from nearby Charleston, had no idea he was about to witness one of the biggest shots of the golf season. He just wanted to get a better view of Rory McIlroy's ball.
Another pro golfer might have whined. After all, a little kid in a red hat was sitting on a branch, hanging over a second shot McIlroy had pushed way left. It was his worst shot of the day to that point, one that caused him to lean back and wince after he hit it.
But this is McIroy, Cool Hand Rory, who on his best days finds a way to win without finding a way to worry. He scanned his shot, set up, and aimed for a hole he could not see. Bennett quietly watched, close enough to leap right on top of the golfer. McIlroy swung his club and watched his shot fly toward the hole. He and Bennett were silent as the white dot disappeared from view.
Then a roar went up. And Bennett slowly started to climb down.
McIlroy's tap-in for birdie on that second hole gave him a four-stroke lead and started a runaway victory for his first PGA Championship and his second major victory in two years. McIlroy has now cemented himself in the “next big thing” category, as he is four months younger than Tiger Woods was when he won his second major, and only a month older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won his second. And while Woods went an entire calendar year (1998) between his first major and his second, McIlroy has his second only a little over a year after his first.
Perhaps just as impressively, McIlroy is, at age 23, only two major championships behind forty-something icons Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.
The weekend was a tour de force for McIlroy, who shot 5-under in the third round and 3-under on the front nine of the fourth. In a post-Escalade golf era defined by parity – there were 16 different winners of the last 16 majors coming into this weekend – McIlroy is the lone standout. He has held the lead after 54 holes in three of the last eight majors.
When he's been right, as he was on this seaside island, he's stunningly sure. His swing is fluid, his walk is casual, and his smile is easy. After nailing that birdie on No. 2, he went to the next tee and joked with playing partner Bo Van Pelt about spiders. He went on to birdie that hole as well.
McIlroy suddenly exudes destiny, even though he was fairly dreadful earlier this season. There have been blow-ups on the final days of majors before – most notably the 80 he shot at the Masters last year after coming into the final day with a four-stroke lead – but as was the case with Woods during his prime, McIlroy can give off a sense of impenetrability. Not even landing a tee shot in a tree on Saturday could stop him from picking up momentum and lapping the field. Ian Poulter was phenomenal on Sunday, shooting 31 on the front, and yet he barely got a sniff of McIlroy, who didn't make a bogey the entire day. Sundays have been slippery for all 54-hole leaders at majors this year, but this Sunday was serenity for McIlroy.
The only other turning point of the afternoon came when both leaders pulled their drives way left – McIlroy on 11 and Poulter on 13. Poulter played a pretty little runner to within 12 feet but missed his par putt. McIlroy, meanwhile, deposited his second shot into a greenside bunker but blasted to within tap-in distance to save par. Game over. Within a half-hour, McIlroy had a six-shot lead.
This summer has not been easy for McIlroy. He found himself in the world's spotlight not only for his talent and charm, but for his relationship with top tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. That got additional scrutiny when McIlroy missed three straight cuts in May and June, and the Ulsterman admitted to "maybe not practicing as hard as I had been." McIlroy finished out of the top 25 in all three prior majors this year, and even close friend Graeme McDowell blamed the constant cross-oceanic travel. While no one could blame McIlroy for enjoying the relationship, love was getting in the way of winning. And some wondered if the star from Holywood had the wattage of Woods and Nicklaus.
But McIlroy doesn't win with intensity. He wins with coolness. And on a weekend where weather and wind made the course unbearable at times, McIlroy waited out the storm and then coasted like a young man walking along a beach.
Now McIlroy has his first Wanamaker Trophy and 8-year-old Bennett has a lifetime memory. When the boy climbed down from the tree, he was asked if he thought the moment was cool. He didn't say a word, preferring instead to nod and move along.
The young fan, like the young champion, acted like it was no big deal.
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