KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – The birth of a champion, and maybe golf’s next dominant player, was a dispiriting, humiliating defeat. Rory McIlroy was back in the woods of the 10th hole at the 2011 Masters as he whacked his ball from tree to tree, a boy lost in the forest on his way to a mortifying fall from the summit of the leader board.
Wilting and wounded, McIlroy vowed to return as something sturdier.
Fast-forward 16 months and measure the substance of McIlroy’s comeback.
Two months after his Masters collapse, he won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes and set 12 records for the event. On Sunday, the 23-year-old McIlroy led the final round of the 2012 PGA Championship from start to finish, crushing an elite field of new wave and veteran contenders to again win by eight strokes – the largest margin in the tournament’s 94-year history.
On Pete Dye’s unnerving Ocean Course, during a weekend of unyielding pressure, McIlroy cruised to a final round of 6-under-par 66 – after a third-round 67 – while the rest of the field averaged 72.2 strokes for the final two rounds. Leading by three strokes after completing the rain-interrupted third round Sunday morning, McIlroy ran away from his challengers. His four-day total on what many consider the most difficult golf course in America was 13-under-par 275.
David Lynn, a European Tour journeyman, was second at 5-under 283. Ian Poulter, who made an early charge at McIlroy on Sunday, was one of four golfers tied for third at 284.
And now, as the golf world wonders if it is witness to the dawn of the Rory Era – Tiger Woods, not insignificantly, floundered down the stretch again – McIlroy still turns to his past to give perspective on his future.
“Losing the Masters sets up everything to follow; it changed me,” he said after he became the youngest winner in the modern era of the PGA Championship and the first from Northern Ireland. “It will always stand me in good stead. I needed to learn how to play at the end of a major championship.”
What next for the new king of men’s golf?
“I won my second major at roughly the same age as Tiger, but he went on an incredible run from there,” McIlroy, who is about five months younger than Woods was when he won his second major. “I would love to say I’m going to do the same thing, but I don’t know. … Hopefully, there’s a few more of these in my closet when my career finishes.”
The message of McIlroy’s precocious talent is getting through to his competitors. Listen to Poulter, who birdied his first five holes Sunday and still trailed.
“You now, I’m looking at the leaderboard thinking I must be chasing him down, but I never did,” Poulter said. “Rory is obviously playing some immense golf. Everybody should take note – the guy is pretty good.”
The previous record for greatest margin of victory at the PGA Championship was seven strokes by Jack Nicklaus in 1980. It was a record that seemed in jeopardy nearly from the start Sunday as McIlroy birdied the second and third holes.
“Gaining confidence early was a big part of my plan for the day,” said McIlroy, the new world No. 1 and the first player from the United Kingdom to win the PGA since Tommy Armour in 1930.
As Poulter, with sensational iron play and aggressive putting, moved to two strokes of the lead three holes into his back nine, McIlroy was calmly piling up pars despite driving it into the rough, as he did on the 10th and 11th holes.
Poulter yanked a 200-yard approach shot to the left of the 13th green, his ball bouncing off a sand dune and coming to rest on a dirt path. It led to the first of three successive bogeys.
McIlroy, like a seasoned titleholder, responded with a birdie on the 12th and the rout was on.
There were other would-be contenders, but they faded fast. Paired with McIlroy, Carl Pettersson was penalized two strokes on his first hole for accidentally moving a leaf – considered a loose impediment – with the backswing of his club when his ball was in a hazard.
Justin Rose, who tied for third with Pettersson, fired a 66 but lost the momentum of his challenge on the back nine. Adam Scott, the British Open runner-up who began the final round four strokes out of the lead, also made an early run but double-bogeyed the 13th to disappear from contention.
Woods, meanwhile, had a series of birdie putts flutter away from the hole on the front nine. Frustrated, his approach shots began to wander too, and he had two bogeys on the back nine to finish even par for the day and 2-under for the tournament, good for a tie for 11th.