Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - While his closest three competitors slugged it out, Rory McIlroy was biding his time in the final round of the PGA Championship.
McIlroy played his worst nine holes since the second round at the Scottish Open on the front nine, but two things sparked him to his third consecutive win, and second straight major championship title, a birdie on seven and an eagle on No. 10.
The 25-year-old bogeyed two of his first six holes to fall out of the lead. As he was stumbling, Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler were trying to pull away.
This was McIlroy's version of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy. Stenson, Mickelson and Fowler were beating each other up over the first 10 holes.
Despite his poor play over the first six holes, you had the sense that McIlroy had a run in him because there were three par-5s over the final 12 holes. He dominated the par-5s en route to winning the Open Championship at Hoylake.
A birdie on the par-5 seventh helped McIlroy start to turn things around. He really jumped back into the mix with an eagle on the 10th. As he stood in the 10th fairway, McIlroy watched as Fowler rolled in 28-foot birdie putt to push his lead to three over the Open Champion.
McIlroy knocked his second shot on 10 within seven feet of the hole. He drained that putt, and you knew that was just the start of things to come.
"The eagle on 10 was massive. I think the birdie on seven really settled me down. I started the round really tentatively. I just didn't have it," admitted McIlroy. "I sort of was trying to get through the first few holes making pars, while everyone was attacking. So that wasn't good. The eagle on 10 changed everything. Rickie holed that putt on 10 to go three ahead. To make that eagle to get within one was massive."
After Mickelson and Fowler failed to take advantage of the short par-4 13th, McIlroy kicked in a short birdie putt there for a share of the lead.
McIlroy was alone in the lead after bogeys by Mickelson at 16 and Fowler at 14. With the 18th being a par-5, you had the feeling that the title was McIlroy's after those bogeys.
The rope-a-dope strategy worked. Stenson punched himself out on the front nine. After five birdies on the first nine, Stenson made just one more birdie at the 13th, but gave that right back as he bogeyed the 14th.
Fowler followed his birdie on 10 with three pars in a row. A poor tee shot at the par-3 14th led to a bogey, and he closed with four more pars.
That left it to Mickelson. The man who had eight top-3 finishes in majors before winning his first major championship at the 2004 Masters had five birdies in his first 11 holes.
Mickelson left his second shot short of the greenside bunker at the 16th and that led to a bogey, which gave McIlroy the lead. As great champions are wont to do, McIlroy extended his lead with a birdie at 17.
There was nothing strange about that, but the 18th was among the strangest final holes in major championship history. With rain beginning to fall, again, and darkness settling in, McIlroy offered to Mickelson and Fowler to play the final hole as a foursome.
The pair from the penultimate group politely declined, but allowed McIlroy and playing partner, Bernd Wiesberger, to hit their tee shots as the two in front of them walked to their tee shots. That was supposed to be it, but officials then had McIlroy and Wiesberger hit their second shots to the 18th green as Mickelson and Fowler waited greenside.
"They showed a lot of class and a lot of sportsmanship by doing that," said McIlroy. "It was a classy move by them, and if they had not of done that, we might not have been able to get it all done because it was getting really dark out there."
A class move indeed, but it could have affected the outcome. McIlroy nearly drove his ball in the water at 18, and if he had done so, maybe Mickelson or Fowler plays the last differently.
"It didn't affect the outcome of the championship at all, I don't think," Mickelson offered. "It's not what we normally do, but it's not a big deal either way. That way they had a chance to finish."
How the last hole played out may not have been a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but the man that lifted the trophy is becoming a very big deal.
McIlroy, 25, has won two majors in a row and is the Masters short of the career grand slam. The hype heading into Augusta next year is going to be big.
A lot could happen between now and then, of course, but there are few players that can match the power and accuracy McIlroy has displayed in winning his last three starts.
RYDER CUP QUESTIONS FOR U.S. TEAM
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson has his first nine players for his team, and now comes the hard part. Who should he pick with his captains pick?
Four of the nine will make their first appearance at the Ryder Cup, while seven of the next 11 on the points list would also play their first Ryder Cup if chosen. Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker have all played one Ryder Cup.
Watson doesn't have many players with experience in the event to chose from. Dufner is battling a pair of bulging discs in his neck, and could easily be overlooked. Tiger Woods is 70th on the points list, and is battling back spasms. It would be hard to pick Woods too, but Watson is not ruling it out.
"As far as Tiger is concerned, I will continue to speak with Tiger over the next three weeks to monitor his situation," Watson said at a press conference. "Obviously he has not been playing well, but I think it's been a result of his injury and his coming back from back surgery. Again, I will monitor his situation and be continually talking with him."
Ryan Moore had a stellar match play record as an amateur, but that was 10 years ago. He had four straight top-15 finishes before sharing 41st at the PGA Championship. He could be a solid selection.
Brendon Todd had six consecutive top-20s from his win at the Byron Nelson to his tie for fourth at the Greenbrier, but he has finished 39th or worse in his last three events. Keegan Bradley has tied for fourth in three of his last seven events. Chris Kirk has one top-10 finish in his last 19 starts.
Simpson and Snedeker each have one appearance in the Ryder Cup, but haven't played that great this year. Simpson finished third in two of four event earlier in the summer, but he missed the cut in two of his last three starts. Snedeker has just two top-10 finishes since sharing eighth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
This group, and others not mentioned, have the next three weeks to catch Watson's eye. Watson will lead a team of underdogs to Gleneagles regardless of who he selects.
Being the last captain to win in Europe, Watson will thrive on the underdog status and play that up with his team. The players need to step up these next few weeks to catch his eye.
- Rory McIlroy was 48-under par over his last three wins. Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia were his closest competitors at the Open Championship, WGC- Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship. Fowler was 36-under par and Garcia went 31-under par in those three events.
- McIlroy owns four majors and that is as many wins as Webb Simpson, and more victories than Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer, Anthony Kim or Patrick Reed.