Rory McIlroy didn't have his best stuff this week and, if you're a professional golfer, that's very, very scary.
For a while on Sunday during the final round of the PGA Championship, one of the most exciting and memorable in many years, it appeared as if the Northern Irishman was going to let the peloton of chasers pass him, that his run of exacting play was going to end. When he stood in the 10th fairway waiting to play his second shot, he saw Rickie Fowler birdie to go up three shots. Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson were also ahead of him. It was, he admitted later, time to make something happen, and that's just what he did.
“I needed to sort of stay patient and just sort of bide my time and wait for something to click,” McIlroy said. “Something to happen and that something happened on the 10th-hole. To make eagle there was a big turning point in the tournament and, from there, I kicked on and played some great golf down the stretch.”
Great golf, but not the kind of golf that saw him win his last Majors by three, six and eight shots. This time, he had to grind it out and push himself uphill to the finish line. But he did just that and it's that performance that makes it all the more satisfying.
“To win it in this fashion and this style, it means a lot,” said the 25-year-old. “It means that I know that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind. 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.
“Phil Mickelson, the second-best player in this year and this generation, to be able to beat him on the back nine on a Sunday; it's great to have in the memory bank and great to have in the locker going forward.”
If it was impressive to watch him lap the field in his previous Majors, it was stunning to see him control the back nine on this occasion.
Over the final five holes, each of the trio of chasers made a bogey: Stenson and Fowler on the 14th, Mickelson on the 16th. McIlroy played that stretch in one-under.
Oh, there was that helping hand from the PGA of America on the final hole. As the sun was setting, Mickelson and Fowler allowed McIlroy and Austrian Bernd Wiesberger to hit their tee shots before the former pair had played their second.
But then the PGA, hustling to get finished before enduring a massive logistical and possibly financial nightmare to come back for a Monday finish, told the last two to play their second shots to the green. It was a breach of etiquette and one a gracious McIlroy made sure to acknowledge to Mickelson and Fowler in the scorer's room, as well as in his thank you speech on the 18th-green (a ceremony that took place basically in the pitch black).
What Rory did was simple: Control the ball. Control his emotions. Control the game. And that's what's scary if you're a golfer. Or impressive if you're a fan.
Earlier this year, McIlroy sat down with Jack Nicklaus and had a long conversation about all things golf. The Golden Bear told the Holywood Kid that he only had his best stuff in about five of the 18 majors he won. The other times, he simply found a way to win. That's what McIlroy seemed to discover yesterday - that he can beat the best without his best.
McIlroy refused to call this a new era, a passing of the baton from that broken-down, old Tiger Woods.
“People can call it what they want, that's for them to decide,” he stated. “I just know that I can win tournaments.”
It's easy to get ahead of ourselves so soon after a victory, to anoint the new king before the old one is gone, but it sure seems as if the next few years are going to be fun to watch if yesterday was any indication.