LITTLE ROCK — Hoped for in Liverpool, the gut check of Rory McIlroy occurred in Louisville.
Three behind with nine holes to play he won with style and grit that would do Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods proud.
Three weeks ago at the British Open, his victory was applauded, but he led by six after 54 holes and winning his third major was merely a walk that Sunday. Questions raised by the way he coasted home at the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA were still unanswered.
Leading in 2011 by eight after three rounds, he won by eight. In front by three after 54 holes in 2012, he won by eight. Impressive for sure, but I am reluctant to climb on the bandwagon of an individual when there is no adversity on the back nine or a deficit with time running out.
With help from Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and others, McIlroy was tested to the max.
His response was a no-panic display of power, precision and putting. During a shaky four-hole stretch, he looked ordinary — three-putts for a bogey, failing to birdie the short fourth, missing the green with a wedge on the fifth and a bogey on six.
Such miscues can nibble at confidence and lead to bad decisions. Think about McIlroy’s play in light of how Cade Foster’s misses altered Alabama’s strategy against Auburn last November. Foster failed on a 44-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter and on a 33-yard try with the score tied early in the fourth.
No doubt Alabama coach Nick Saban factored in those misses when he passed on a 30-yard field goal attempt for a 10-point lead with less than 6 minutes to play and T.J. Yeldon made zilch on fourth-and-1. Wondering whether Foster could deliver a field goal in overtime also was part of Saban’s decision to send out Adam Griffith for a 57-yard attempt on the final play.
McIlroy’s 3-wood screamer through an opening to the 10th green will often be cited as a key shot in his victory on Sunday. So, too, his 9-iron from a bunker that set up birdie on No. 17.
Given short shrift both times is sealing the deal with the putter like Nicklaus and Woods seemed did when they were dominant.
To me, his approach on the 13th — Valhalla’s signature hole with the island green — said the most about his confidence. Most every player had the same second shot from 90 to 110 yards to a pin hugging the right side with little room behind the hole.
Fowler shied away from the danger, 30 feet on the safe side. Mickelson was some better, but still with an emphasis on dry. McIlroy’s dead aim at the flag without spin left him eight feet for another birdie.
As impeccable as McIlroy was on the back nine, bringing the water into play by hitting driver off the 18th is questioned. Maybe he hurried when given the go-ahead to hit with Mickelson and Fowler trekking toward their tee shots. Mickelson did not appear happy with that decision and I understand him wanting McIlroy to think about his tee shot for six or eight minutes.
For a long-time golf fan, it was riveting TV, as good as I can remember from such a large cast in a major tournament.
Looking at the PGA result, McIlroy’s victory over the elite field in the World Golf Championship event the previous week, and his performance in the British Open, a coronation is in order. Woods might win again, but no longer is he the player to beat in the majors and McIlroy is in the minority when he says he is not counting majors with Nicklaus’ 18 in mind.
His success has altered one man’s plan for coverage of The Masters. Normally, Thursday is spent walking with a player out of the spotlight. Not on April 9. I want to follow McIlroy.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.