Rory McIlroy has the potential to make golf fans forget about Tiger Woods, at least for a little while.
Under fading light at the PGA Championship, McIlroy, 25, came from three shots down with nine holes to play to prevail in a rain-delayed final-round struggle against 44-year-old Phil Mickelson and 25-year-old Rickie Fowler. All three swapped birdies down the stretch.
McIlroy's second straight major triumph comes as Woods sits at home nursing an ailing back and after lopsided wins in golf's three previous major tournaments this year led to a drop in television ratings. Yesterday's final 18 holes at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, might reverse the ratings trend.
"You couldn't ask for anything better," said Brad Adgate, director of research at New York-based Horizon Media. "A close match with two top golfers and a rain delay allowing for almost 2 hours of prime time golf in the eastern time zone. It was compelling. Even my wife watched it."
The win gives McIlroy his second PGA Championship and fourth career major golf title. He's the first golfer to win consecutive majors in six years, matching Padraig Harrington's feat at the 2008 British Open and PGA.
Soon after lifting the winner's Wanamaker Trophy, McIlroy had already set his sights on trying to win his first green jacket at the Masters Tournament next April, securing a career Grand Slam.
"292 days, 291 days, whatever it is," a smiling McIlroy said of the countdown to golf's first major of 2015 in Augusta, Georgia. "Not that I'm counting."
April 9, the first round of the Masters, is actually 242 days away. McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, was eighth in this year's Masters, three years after surrendering a four-shot lead with a final-round 80.
British bookmaker William Hill is offering odds of 33-1 for McIlroy to win all four majors in 2015.
Before this year, McIlroy had won each of his two previous major titles by eight-shot margins. He led July's British Open wire-to-wire for a two-shot win. This one was the most memorable, he said.
After rounds of 66, 67 and 67, McIlroy took a one-shot advantage into the final day of the PGA and then slipped out of the lead by playing the first nine holes in 1-over par, while Mickelson made four birdies over his opening nine.
After hitting a 281-yard second shot onto the green at the par-5 10th hole, McIlroy rolled in a 7-foot eagle putt to pull within one of the lead. He then hit his approach to about two feet on the par-4 island green 13th hole to set up a birdie that tied him for the lead. Birdies on the 13th and 17th, where he hit a 150-yard shot from a fairway bunker and sank the 10-foot putt, sealed the win.
"To win it in this fashion and this style, it means a lot," McIlroy said. It means I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a major and come out on top."
Woods, 38, left the course on Friday night, having missed the 36-hole cut in a major for only the fourth time since turning professional. The 14-time major tournament winner hasn't won one of golf's four Grand Slam events since prevailing over Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open.
In McIlroy, Adgate says golf now has the closest thing to Woods that has come along in more than a decade.
"He has convinced many he is the top golfer in the world and he should be the favorite in Masters," Adgate said. "He's Tiger Woods circa 1998."
With three straight wins, including consecutive majors, even McIlroy couldn't help but think of how Woods did it for so many years.
"It sort of makes you appreciate more what Tiger has done in the past," he said. "Getting on these runs that he's gone on and keeping it going, you know, for months on end, basically."
Casey Alexander, a New York-based analyst at Gilford Securities Inc., said McIlroy's performance at the Masters will do a lot to determine his future.
"There's going to be a tremendous amount of attention paid to the Masters now with Rory going for three in a row and the career grand slam," Alexander said in a telephone interview. "By then, Tiger could be back and Phil always loves the Masters. It could be pretty special.'
Between now and the Masters, McIlroy said is prepared to accept the comparisons to Woods.
"You have to welcome it and I don't think you can see it as a burden," he said. "It's a great place to be in. I definitely don't have a problem with being one of the faces or if not the face of golf."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun