PGA: McIlroy shines brightest — even with a finish in darkness

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – No major golf tournament ever ended quite like the 96th PGA Championship did on Sunday.

The finish came in darkness with players from the last two twosomes clustered around the 18th green playing much like a foursome would. There could have been some controversy, but both Phil Mickelson nor Rickie Fowler steered clear of that after Rory McIlroy won his third straight tournament and second major title in a row.

“This is just incredible. I didn’t think in my wildest dreams I’d have a summer like this one,’’ a jubilant McIlroy said after beating Mickelson by one shot and Fowler by two with a 16-under-par 268 total for the 72 holes at Valhalla Golf Club.

A 1-hour 50-minute morning rain delay caused major problems for all involved – the players, PGA of America tournament organizations and those in the huge, swarming galleries that splashed their way through muddy spots throughout the course.

Just finishing play appeared doubtful after the delay. McIlroy was to tee off in the last group at 2:55 p.m. (Eastern time). Instead he started his round at 4:20. Because the course was so wet there were frequent delays as players sought rulings for unplayable lies. The last twosome needed 2 hours 20 minutes to play nine holes.

McIlroy, considered one of the game’s fastest players, won on patience as much as anything else. First Ernie Els and then Henrik Stenson made runs at home by shooting 5-under-par 30s on the front nine.

They backed up on the back nine, but Fowler and Mickelson, playing in the twosome immediately in front of McIlroy, never did. They had a shot as late as the strange final hole.

Play was delayed on the 18th tee as players hurried to finish before play would be called by darkness. McIlroy produced his key birdie at No. 17, hitting a 9-iron bunker shot on the par-4 to 12 feet. That put him two shots in front of Fowler and Mickelson, who couldn’t tee off on the last hole before McIlroy arrived there.

They hit there shots and headed down the fairway when tournament officials chased them down to ask if McIlroy and his partner, Austrian Berndt Wiesberger, could hit their tee shots before Fowler and Mickelson hit their second shots on the par-5. They agreed, believing that to be common courtesy, then were asked to allow the same procedure to be allowed after their second shots.

“The original plan was to let them hit their tee shots, but we weren’t planning on them also hitting their approach shots,’’ said Fowler. “We wanted to put pressure on Rory, but he was playing pretty solid golf.’’

Mickelson’s second shot ended just short of the green and Fowler’s found the front of the green. Then McIlroy hit his second shot into a green-side bunker. Mickelson nearly holed his chip shot for eagle. Fowler’s putt went five feet past the cup. They finished out their rounds, Mickelson making birdie to cut the gap on McIlroy to one shot and Fowler lipping out his birdie putt to end in a tie with Stenson for third.

McIlroy escaped the bunker and two-putted for par from 20 feet. Had Mickelson’s chip or Fowler’s first putt dropped, the competitive dynamics would have been far different for McIlroy. He thanked Mickelson and Fowler for their patience.

“I wanted to play up as a foursome,’’ said McIlroy. “That was a nice show of sportsmanship and class by those guys.’’

Mickelson was clearly not pleased with the group finish and said PGA Tour policy would have called for only the ahead-of-schedule tee shot by McIlroy to be permitted.

“But it’s not a big deal,’’ said Mickelson. “It gave everyone a chance to finish, and we did just in the nick of time.’’

Had there been a tie after 72 holes the leaders would have had to return on Monday morning for a three-hole total score playoff.

McIlroy could also have refused to play if he deemed it too dark to continue, but he didn’t want that.

“I wanted to finish this thing and get out of here,’’ he said.

The weird finish came in the aftermath of his wins in the British Open in July and the Bridgestone Invitational earlier this month. McIlroy, 25, won the PGA for the second time, the first in 2012, and also has a win in the U.S. Open. Sunday’s victory made him the third-youngest player to win four majors, following Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. He’ll go for the career Grand Slam at next April’s Masters – the first major of 2015.