It was evident in February, at the Honda Classic, that Rory McIlroy wasn’t quite ready to return to the lofty heights he had achieved in 2012 when he won the PGA Championship by eight strokes – eclipsing the record held by Jack Nicklaus from his 1980 victory – and then followed with two more wins in reaching No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy was securely in the lead at the Nicklaus-designed Champion course at PGA National Resort – until he wasn’t. He played the famed “Bear Trap,” holes 15-17, in 3 over par, and ended up in a playoff with Russell Knox, Ryan Palmer and eventual winner Russell Henley.
“I didn’t play enough to deserve to win,” McIlroy said plainly after the setback in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Fast forward six months, and McIlroy, 25, of Northern Ireland, has been playing well enough to win. And that’s what he’s been doing – in a major way.
In one of the finest performances on the PGA TOUR in recent memory, McIlroy has reclaimed the No. 1 ranking thanks to three straight victories. He began his run with a wire-to-wire victory in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, where he opened with a pair of 66s and then held off Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia on Sunday.
Then he arrived in Akron, Ohio, noting that he may have won three majors, but he hadn’t won a World Golf Championships event. OK, well, check that off the list because McIlroy overtook third-round leader Garcia and captured the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
"What I'm really proud of this week is just following up the Open with a performance like this, McIlroy said in the aftermath of his seventh PGA TOUR title. "I said straight after I didn't want any letdown. I just want to keep going."
And that is what he did at yet another Nicklaus course, Valhalla Golf Club, where McIlroy completed his hat trick with a one-stroke victory over Phil Mickelson in near darkness in Louisville, Ky., to capture his second PGA Championship and fourth major title. McIlroy had to dig deep for that one, letting a one-stroke lead evaporate on water-logged Valhalla before shooting a closing 3-under 69 and beating not only Mickelson, but also Fowler and Henrik Stenson, who also had a share of the lead the final day before McIlroy emerged with the Wanamaker Trophy.
“He’s better than everyone else right now. Yeah, he’s good. Really good,” Mickelson said of the winner, who became the first player since Padraig Harrington in 2008 to win consecutive majors. McIlroy, 25, also is the third youngest behind Woods and Jack Nicklaus to win four major titles.
“I'm on a nice track at the minute. I’ve still got a long way to go, but to be in their company at this age is very special,” McIlroy said after collecting $1.8 and passing Adam Scott to move into the top spot in the world rankings.
A nice track, indeed. Can he keep going? A win next year at the Masters would give him the career grand slam and three straight major wins. Rory Slam anyone?