2014 PGA: Rory Shines After Dark
By Torleif Sorenson on 8/10/14
Rory McIlroy held on until the very end to capture the 96th PGA Championship by one stroke — and with only a sliver of natural light available. And had McIlroy been even less able to see what he had been doing at the 18th green and lost his lead at the last, the PGA of America would have found themselves in a mess even bigger than the weather left much of Valhalla Golf Club on Sunday.

All-day drama

A one-hour, fifty-minute rain delay caused the leaders to tee-off way late. And when it took over two hours, twenty minutes to play the first nine, we knew that finishing this championship before dark was not even remotely guaranteed.

Before the leaders teed-off, Ernie Els got out to a such a hot start — six birdies in the first 11 holes — that CBS lead play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz felt compelled to note that 63 has been shot in major championships 26 times, but nobody has shot a 62. Then Nantz and Nick Faldo noted that Valhalla, having been softened by rain the last couple of days, was capable of yielding a 62. In the end, the magic ran out for Els on the hardest part of the course (holes 12 to 16); but he and Jimmy Walker both shot 65s for the low round of the day.

The drama was even tighter on the golf course. Where the U.S. Open (Martin Kaymer) and the Open Championship had less than heart-stopping finishes, the PGA went all the way to the end.

McIlroy caused a good portion of the drama by bogeying the 3rd hole to cough up the lead. His playing partner, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger could not replicate his strong play of Saturday; he failed to make a birdie all day and shot 74 to finished T-15.

So, with Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson, and Henrik Stenson emerging as the other chief dramatis personæ, an exciting horse race got underway in Louisville — one that rivaled the drama at Churchill Downs.

Mickelson roared out of the gate by drilling a 55-foot birdie at the first hole, then birdied the 3rd to gain a share of the lead. Fowler, in contrast, stubbed his proverbial toe with a bogey at the 500-yard par-4 2nd hole. But at the par-3 3rd, Fowler stuck his approach to about one foot for a badly-needed birdie, then stuck another approach to six feet at the 4th. And when Mickelson couldn't sink his birdie at 4, Fowler sunk his and moved into a 4-way tie for the lead at 4:58 EDT.

That four-way tie became a five-way tie at the top of the hour when Stenson Stenson stroked home a three-footer for bird.

Jason Day attempted to join the charge when he sank a long birdie at the 5th to surge to -11, one back of the leaders. But when he bogeyed the 6th and 7th holes, Day skidded down the leaderboard, ultimately shooting a one-over 72 to finish T-15 at -9 (275).

Fowler took a solo lead at -14 with a birdie at the 7th hole. This caused Nantz to verbally foreshadow that, in both of Fowler's prior victories, McIlroy had finished second. But seconds later, Stenson moved back into a tie for the lead with Fowler with a matching birdie.

At the redesigned-and-longer 6th hole, Rory dumped his approach shot in a green-side bunker, resulting in his second bogey of the day. Up ahead, Fowler and Stenson were tied for the lead at -13, but Stenson missed the 8th green with a 9-iron and needed a 13-footer to save par.

At the 597-yard 7th, Mickelson found the right side rough, then lashed a fairway metal to clear the water and halt on the back fringe, 25 feet away. Fowler nearly holed out from the bunker, but converted the birdie. Mickelson's eagle putt then just died at the edge, failing to turn right with the anticipated slope of the green. It disappointed thousands gathered around the green. Still, the resulting birdie got him into a tie for the lead at 5:04 p.m. EDT.

Once they cleared the 7th green, Rory couldn't turn over his approach onto the green, leaving it on the far down-slope of the right-side bunker — the wrong place, according to Faldo. But with a wide-open wedge, McIlroy avoided disaster so deftly that it left CBS-TV on-course analyst David Feherty laughing in amazement. Rory made the birdie putt to get back to -12, two off the lead. Stenson then leapfrogged by holing for birdie at the 9th to jump back into a tie for the lead.

The closing nine

At 10 and holding a share of the lead with Fowler and Stenson, "Lefty" yanked his tee-shot so far to the left that it struck a spectator. He managed to lash a fairway metal out of the cabbage, but it leaked off the right side of the fairway and into more deep rough.

Back at the 10th tee, Rory split the fairway, but was forced to wait for the groups ahead of him to make up some time. Up ahead, Mickelson stuck the landing of his approach just 12 feet away, but burned the edge of the hole with his birdie attempt. Fowler then sank a 20-footer for fifth birdie of the day and recaptured the lead at -15 at 6:46 EDT. The gallery's roar was unmistakable to McIlroy in the middle of the fairway.

At that moment, Feherty said that Rory "needs to step on it" on the closing nine. As if on cue, Rory unleash a long fairway metal that landed slightly left, 30 yards short of the green and ran up hole-high, some six feet away! In fact, Rory was the only golfer on Sunday to reach the 10th green in two. Shockingly, McIlroy told the press afterward that his 3-metal at the 10th did not fly the way he wanted it to!

Before McIlroy could attempt his eagle, Fowler hit the green at 11, but landed on the middle tier of the green and the ball would not curl for him. His birdie attempt from 30 feet below the hole came up well short, but Mickelson made a birdie at the par-3 11th, getting him into the lead at -15.

Mickelson hit the top tier of the green, giving Phil about 12 feet for birdie.

Moments later at the 10th, Rory's eagle attempt dove in on the right side. The Northern Irishman surged to -14 (one back), and the gallery exploded.

At 7:00 p.m. EDT

Mickelson and Fowler were tied at -15, Mcilroy and Stenson were tied at -14, and their nearest competitors were at -11: Els, Walker, Furyk, Ryan Palmer, Mikko Ilonen, and Bernd Wiesberger.

With Fowler tied for the lead, CBS commentator Peter Oosterhuis said he was seeing something very different in Fowler's demeanor. Faldo agreed, opining that Fowler's focus seemed to be much stronger than at previous majors. (And this is with Fowler already having top-five finishes in the first three majors this year.)

The two-way tie for the lead became a three-way tie again at 13, when Stenson threw his approach over the flag, just off the fridge, to about six feet. The big Swede converted the birdie to get to -15.

At the 12th, neither Mickelson nor Fowler could make any magic; Fowler came up short of the green, while Mickelson may have had mud on his ball; he blocked his approach right, into the deep rough. Fowler's pitch from deep rough at the front of the green went about three feet past the jar and slightly right. But moments later, Mickelson electrified the gallery by saving par (and his share of the lead) with a cross-country 28-foot putt. And Rory had to watch it from the fairway.

Seconds later, Feherty presciently opined on-the-air that he thought that McIlroy, looking on from the fairway, was thinking that Mickelson had made a birdie, not a par. (Speaking to the press afterward, McIlroy confirmed Feherty's suspicion.

No matter. In response just seconds later, Rory stuck an iron to nine feet, drawing another roar. But he burned the right edge of the hole and had to settle for par.

Stenson slipped from the leaders at the 217-yard, par-3 14th when he lipped out his par putt. This was followed by an awful 15th hole; his tee shot found the right rough and his approach landed well left in the bunker. An excellent sand save to four feet allowed him to save par and remain at -14, one back of the lead. But the Swede could get no closer.

After he and Finland's Mikko Ilonen cleared the green, Mickelson stuck his tee shot on the edge of the ridge below the 14th hole with a nice draw. Having to hit something of a fade, the right-handed Fowler went right of the gallery and into a muddy quagmire. Forced to drop, Fowler hit a decent wedge past the hole. Mickelson got away with par, but Fowler two-putted for bogey and could get no closer.

Back at the 13th, having missed several eight- to ten-footers at 11 and 12, Rory sank a nine-footer for a badly-needed birdie to get back into a 3-way tie at the top.

At the 508-yard 16th, the toughest hole at Valhalla on Sunday, Mickelson found the left rough and a lousy lie. Then, Fowler yanked his tee shot over the creek and into the rough on the 15th hole. Conscious of the fading daylight, McIlroy smoked his tee-shot into the middle of the 15th fairway while waiting for Fowler to play. Moments later, Fowler amazingly found the front of the 16th green, and even through it rolled off the front of the green, the gallery gave him a raucous round of applause — one Fowler clearly deserved.

Afterward, Mickelson decided to make time and play next... and his wedge nearly went in! The ball caught the right edge of the jar, but would not fall. Still, he and McIlroy remained tied for the lead at -15, with Fowler and Stenson one back at -14.

At 8:00 p.m. EDT

Fowler, after his unbelievable recovery, faced a 97-foot putt, which he admirably left only five feet beyond the hole. Mickelson, in stark contrast, had just nine feet remaining for par, but left it short. The resulting bogey dropped him into a tie for second at -14, leaving Rory alone with the lead. Fowler made his comeback putt for par, drawing another sustained ovation.

In the 16th fairway, after cranking a 331-yard drive, McIlroy hit the center of the green with a 9-iron, although he probably needed one more club to find the flag-stick. The Northern Irishman saved par and held onto the lead.

At the 17th tee, Fowler swatted it 300+ to the middle of the fairway, but pushed his approach onto the very far right side of the green. Mickelson found the rough just in front of the left fairway bunker for the second day in a row. Missing the green, Mickelson left himself a difficult up-and-down from a downhill slope, needing to pitch over a valley. In true “Phil the Thrill” fashion, he bumped-and-ran it to about 18 inches, drawing another ovation.

Back at the 16th green, Rory had 22 feet for birdie in order to gain a 2-shot lead, but slid the putt just to the left. With only 20 minutes of daylight remaining, Rory cleaned up for par and quickly headed for the 17th tee.

Up at 18 and trying for some last-second heroics, Stenson tried to find the green in two, but a mud-ball approach landed ten rows deep into the gallery in a bare, chewed-up patch of ground on a downslope. He tried to pitch his third, but it came up short of the green in more rough. Stenson then nearly holed his chip, but settled for par and a still-impressive 66.

Back in the 17th green, Fowler's 51-footer came up about five feet away, largely because the daylight had faded so much that it became difficult to read the green's contours. Fowler saved par to remain at -14.

At 17, McIlroy found a fairway bunker, but a clean lie allowed him to take a 9-iron approach, which stuck to about eight feet from the flagstick at 17. The calmly-struck birdie putt boosted him into a two-shot lead with only the 18th hole remaining.

Fowler and Mickelson had yet to hit their tee-shots at 18 when McIlroy and Wiesberger arrived. The PGA of America actually let McIlroy and Wiesberger tee off, but intended for the final group to be a foursome — except that communications broke down; Mickelson and Fowler had to be advised to clear the fairway for the final pair!

In a near-disaster, McIlroy yanked his tee-shot right, but the ball managed to stay out of the water hazard.

At 8:31 pm Eastern Daylight Time... might just as have well been "Eastern Nightlight Time." The sky was so dark and overcast that Peter Kostis said that depth perception just from the eyes down to the ball was problematic. In fact, the only reason television coverage was still possible was because CBS photographers had the irises on their cameras wide-open.

Mickelson finished short of the green, with Fowler only a couple of yards beyond him. The problem then was that Mickelson and Fowler took off for the green, rather than letting McIlroy and Wiesberger also play to the green. Even as Fowler hit his approach to the 18th, thunder audibly rumbled in the background.

In fact, it was so dark that Bernd Wiesberger’s caddie told him to aim his approach shot for the lights of the CBS studio occupied by Nantz and Faldo. Seconds later, Rory found the left front bunker, which Faldo pointed out was some 35 yards downhill from the flagstick.

In the gloaming, lightning suddenly struck some distance beyond the clubhouse. On the 18th green, just a few seconds after that, lightning nearly struck again when Phil Mickelson almost holed his pitch from off the green. A final round 66 got Lefty to -15. Peter Kostis reported that Mickelson was quite unhappy with the 18th hole arrangement, but afterward, Mickelson restrained his displeasure in front of reporters.

Fowler's eagle putt raced about six feet past the hole. His birdie putt lipped out, leaving him with a par and a 68, for a -14 finish and a T-3. Despite having finished closer earlier this year, Fowler told David Feherty afterward that "this is the one that stings."

From a bunker left of the 18th green, Rory had so much trouble seeing that he was only able to coax his shot about halfway to the hole.

At that point, both Nantz and David Feherty said that their thought was that McIlroy would (and should) wait until morning to finish. Just after saying that, CBS director Lance Barrow pulled up a wide-angle camera shot without the irises wide-open, and on-screen it truly looked too dark to play.

Nevertheless, McIlroy putted, leaving it just 8 inches short. Wiesberger’s attempt for his only birdie of the day lipped out, left to right. McIlroy calmly sank his 8-inch putt for par in the gloaming, with flashbulbs about the only thing illuminating the 18th green.

At 8:44 p.m. Eastern Barely-Any-Daylight Time, it was finally over.

The final analysis

McIlroy skidded early, but simply would not buckle. In the end, his magnificent second shot at the 10th that led to an eagle, along with his 331-yard nuclear tee-shot at 16, may have been the two that propelled him back to the Wanamaker Trophy. His ability to stay calm under the enormous stress of holding a slim lead — and being forced to play as quickly as possible in the fading light — is monumentally admirable. McIlroy truly does belong in the category of the greatest — and this is only his fourth major championship.

Lessons learned?

  • An after-dark finish is, unfortunately, not unheard of on the PGA Tour. It was after dark when Tiger hoisted the U.S. Open trophy in June of 2001 at Bethpage Black. Tiger also won after dark at Firestone. And on Sunday, Rory McIlroy somehow managed to find the 18th hole and win by the thinnest-possible margin.

    Around 15 years ago, ABC Sports brought in ballpark lights for the prime-time finish of Tiger's televised "Battle at Bighorn" exhibition match. With the example of a nearly two-hour weather delay, the PGA of America and the USGA might possibly need to seriously consider having lights available to deploy on Sunday evenings when they know that weather could be problematic. That is, if they refuse to move up the start times or do a 10th-tee start for the lower half of the field.

    In fact, Brandel Chamblee, Frank Nobilo, and Notah Begay were arguing afterward on television that the PGA of America should have called earlier start times, or possibly even a 10th tee-start.

  • The PGA of America could also do well to have a silversmith add a non-slip lid attachment to the Wanamaker Trophy, in order to prevent more embarrassing moments like this one:

    Good thing that Rory has quick hands.

  • It is interesting that, earlier this week, many people thought that the PGA Championship was not only the last of the men's major championships, but also the least. In the end, the 96th PGA Championship proved to be — by far — the most dramatic of the four this year.

  • Tiger Woods tried admirably, but failed to make the 36-hole cut — and as a result, the FedEx Cup Playoffs cut, and the Ryder Cup cut.

    Golf Channel's Rich Lerner, hosting the post-game coverage, declared that this marks the end of an era. With Tiger Woods no longer dominating major championships and Rory succeeding under a variety of stressful scenaria, this writer refuses to disagree.

  • Rory McIlroy proved that he is, indeed, the Champion Golfer For The Year.

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