LOUISVILLE, Ky. — More than three years on, and Rory McIlroy is still applying the lessons he learned on his roughest day as a professional golfer. To say such disappointment turned him into the world’s top-ranked player would be a disservice to his talent and work ethic. But it has influenced his mentality, an approach that has already paid off in record-setting fashion.
It should also put McIlroy in good stead this weekend, as he tries to turn a one-stroke lead at the 96th PGA Championship into his second straight victory in a major championship, and fourth win in his last 15 major starts.
Courtesy of a second-round 67 on Friday, McIlroy has completed two trips around Valhalla Golf Club in 9 under par, one ahead of Jason Day (65) and Jim Furyk (68), two better than Rickie Fowler (66), Ryan Palmer (70), and Mikko Ilonen (68). With Tiger Woods limping to a second straight 74 to miss the cut at a major for just the fourth time as a professional, it’s McIlroy serving up a steady reminder of the player Woods was when he won the PGA at Valhalla in 2000: In complete control of his game, confident, all facets firing.
What needs to play out over the next two days is whether anyone will push McIlroy at Valhalla, the way Bob May challenged Woods 14 years ago. Certainly, there are a number of strong candidates, a tantalizing mix of pursuers who have won major championships before, those who have been close, and those who have not.
But the way McIlroy is playing — and has played the past month — it might not matter. Although there were 15 players separated by only four shots after 36 holes, McIlroy could turn this tournament into a runaway victory, the kind he had two years ago, when he won the PGA by a record eight shots.
Oh, and the lesson McIlroy took from that dark day three years ago at the Masters, when he lost a four-shot lead heading into the final round? How to be a good front-runner. He has definitely become one.
“It’s taken me a couple of years to grow into that where I am comfortable, and my mind-set has stayed the same since that day at Augusta,” said McIlroy. “If I’m two ahead going into the weekend here, I’m going to try to get three ahead. If I’m three ahead, I’m going to try to get four ahead. If I’m four ahead, I’m going to try to get five ahead. I’m just going to try to keep the pedal down and get as many ahead as possible.
“I’ve went protection mode once in my career, and it was the 2011 Masters. That didn’t work out very well. So I said to myself, ‘I’ll never do that again.’ ”
Fourteen months after losing that Masters, McIlroy won the US Open by eight shots. Then he won the 2012 PGA by eight shots. He led last month’s Open Championship by six shots entering Sunday, and has been near the lead after every round in each of his past three starts.
Stretching back to the third round of the Scottish Open — the week before he bagged the Open Championship — McIlroy has played 12 competitive rounds, with 11 scores in the 60s. His stroke average during that span: 67.0.
“When I’m playing like this, it’s obviously very enjoyable, and I can’t wait to get back out on the course again tomorrow and do the same thing all over again,” he said. “But there’s times in the round where there’s going to be a little bit of stress and a little bit of anxiety.”
Those surfaced in the second round, but McIlroy, playing in the morning, after a 45-minute weather delay, stayed patient and stuck to his plan. He didn’t hit as many fairways or greens Friday, but had the same number of putts (27) and this time made an eagle at the par-5 18th hole, which gave McIlroy his first outright lead. He closed with a birdie at the ninth, rolling in a 16-foot putt.
Three of McIlroy’s three closest chasers have never won a major. Day and Fowler have been close (seven combined top-5 finishes since 2011), and Palmer’s best career finish was 10th at the 2011 Masters. Furyk has one, at the 2003 US Open. With McIlroy on such a roll, they know the size of the challenge.
“I’m clearly not the favorite with how Rory is playing, especially over the last few tournaments. He looks confident. He’s hitting the ball longer and straighter than pretty much everyone in the field. It’s going to be tough to beat him,” said Day, who had an eagle and three birdies on the front nine to turn in 30, then birdied each of his last two holes to get into the final pairing with McIlroy on Saturday. “McIlroy, how he’s playing, he could run away with things again. I’m going to hopefully try and keep pace.”
Even with one of the best leaderboards we’ve seen at a major championship this year — Phil Mickelson eagled the 18th hole to shoot 67 and is three shots back, with Henrik Stenson, Steve Stricker, Lee Westwood, and Louis Oosthuizen all four back — this feels like McIlroy’s tournament, to win or lose.
It felt that way before the first round, and it felt that way after, even though he was one shot out of the lead. It feels that way now, in spite of all the names lurking.
“I can’t control the outcome. I can’t control what other people do,” McIlroy said. “So do I expect to win? No. But do I expect to do the things that I know I can do and control? Yes. And I know that if I do those well, there’s a good chance that I’ll win.”