No Doubt About It
After 36 holes in the 2014 PGA Championship there were a familiar trio of 20-somethings once again at the forefront of a Major Championship. World #1 Rory McIlroy was in command after rounds of 66 and 67, which left him at 9-under par for the Championship, but only with a slim advantage over 26-year old Jason Day, one behind at 8-under and fellow 25-year old Rickie Fowler one further in arrears at 7-under par.
There was a healthy mix of 40-somethings chasing McIlroy headed by Jim Furyk who was tied with Day at 8-under. A rejuvenated Phil Mickelson made an eagle-3 on his last hole on Friday to also get into contention at 6-under par. One stroke behind Mickelson was 41-year old Englishman, Lee Westwood, who is still in search of his first victory in a Major Championship.
Playing at the Valhalla Golf Club which had hosted both the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships in addition to the 2008 Ryder Cup (the last time the US team had been the winners of Samuel Ryder’s bi-annual get together), it would seem that the world’s best once again would rise to the occasion.
In Norse legend, Valhalla is the eternal, heavenly drinking hall in which Odin hosts the slain heroes of man’s world after the passage to the after-life. In Louisville, Kentucky this weekend, it became the earthly Valhalla and the birdie feasting hall for the world’s best golfers.
The third round would be filled with enough accompanying fireworks to appease any Norse god, borne out by the lowest day’s scoring average of 69.57, in the history of the PGA Championship.
Consecutive bogies on the 11th and 12th holes seemed to have eliminated Mickelson’s chances until a very Phil-like barrage of 4 birdies in the last 5 holes meant that he would be 10-under par going into Sunday and very much within striking distance.
McIlroy was not the same player as he was on the first two days, but while the precision of his iron shots was flawed, his short game was not, as he scrambled to make pars around the turn to hold his lead at 12-under par teeing off on the 12th hole . A bogey there saw him surrender his outright lead, but then he seemed to find another gear.
McIlroy closed with birdies on three of his final four holes to be 13-under giving him a 1-shot advantage heading into Sunday. Great players have the ability to play good rounds when they are not at their best. McIlroy’s 4-under par, 67 on this day, was clearly evidence of that and is not something that he may have been able to do until recently.
And along came a stranger; a stranger to this stage, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, who shaped an unlikely but brilliant nonetheless, 65, a 12-under total and one behind the overnight lead of McIlroy.
Fowler, who has been superb in the season’s first three Majors with a 5th place finish in the Masters followed by consecutive runner-up finishes in both the U.S. Open and the Open Championships, was 11-under after the third day.
Day, the enormously gifted Australian who already has three second place finishes in Majors on his resume, shot a 2-under par, 69, that was perhaps the highest score he could have posted but would still leave him part of the scenery.
On the periphery of contention at 9-under par was Swedish star, Henrik Stenson, who has won several marquee tournaments but never a Major.
If Saturday produced fireworks, Sunday promised a bonfire.
An inch of rain in the space of one hour on Sunday morning would delay play for almost two hours and soften up an already vulnerable Valhalla allowing all the players to take dead aim, at every flag.
McIlroy stumbled early in his round missing two short putts for par before making a birdie on the par-5 7th, reviving his hopes 12-under par, but now he was the hunter not the hunted.
There were three atop the leaderboard at 14-under. Mickelson made four birdies in his opening 9 as did Fowler who offset an early bogey with four birdies of his own and a red-hot Stenson who was 5-under on his first 9.
On the par-5 10th hole, McIlroy would re-enter his claim with an exquisite second shot with a 3-wood that bent brilliantly from the left and set up his eagle putt that brought him back to 14-under.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had descended upon Valhalla: Stenson, Fowler, Mickelson and McIlroy, and none would be denied.
One however, would have to win and in the end that is what the new supreme champion of golf would achieve.
After making a separating birdie on the second to last hole, McIlroy needed only to par the par-5, last hole, to secure his place in history. He would do so in the last waning moments of light, when he and his playing partner, Wiesberger, were called up to join Fowler and Mickelson to make a foursome playing the 18th.
As the last vestiges of light waxed into the Kentucky night, a new god was admitted into Odin’s hallowed halls.