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Rory McIlroy claims PGA Championship in classic form

Rory McIlroy admires the Wanamaker trophy after his one-stroke victory Sunday.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy admires the Wanamaker trophy after his one-stroke victory Sunday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Go ahead. You can finally, after all these years, erase the 2000 PGA Championship from the saved programs on the DVR. It’s been replaced by another Valhalla classic, and this one might never get deleted.

Firmly establishing itself as one of the most exciting golf majors in years — what’s a safe estimate: 20 years? 30? 50? Possibly ever? — the 96th PGA Championship barely finished on Sunday night, wrapping under a threatening layer of angry, ominous clouds, the final twosome all but sprinting down, and then up, the 18th fairway in a dash to finish before darkness and more rain took over.

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That final scene, strange as it was, fits perfectly into this narrative, because it capped an unforgettably wild final day. Five players had their hands on the lead at some point, and at one point there was a five-way tie for first.

The tournament played itself out on the back nine with a string of birdies, an epic eagle, and a comeback that should have surprised not a soul.

Unlike the 2000 PGA, when it was just Tiger Woods and Bob May engaged in a daylong duel, this one involved twice as many players. In the end, the player who started the day one stroke in front finished one stroke in front. But good luck having Rory McIlroy fully grasp just how amazing Sunday was at Valhalla Golf Club, at least not any time soon. Too much happened, by too many people, not to leave something important out.

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But McIlroy played the lead role, all week long. His victory gave him wins in each of his last three tournament starts, a run that started last month at the Open Championship. Now the proud owner of four majors and the world’s No. 1 ranking, McIlroy will head to the Masters eight months from now dragging two possibilities with him: A win at Augusta gives him the career grand slam. Victories at the Masters and then the US Open would give him all four major trophies at the same time.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. For now, Sunday is the rightful focus. Valhalla is a place that’s seen its share of golf heroics, but this one tops them all.

McIlroy survived the challenge heaved at him by three hard-charging competitors, officially winning the PGA Championship with a two-putt par at the par-5 18th hole. In shooting a final-round 68, McIlroy finished 16 under par, one stroke in front of Phil Mickelson, whose bid to tie at the last green rolled inches away, his chip for eagle scaring the hole for a second or two. Mickelson shot 66.

Rickie Fowler’s chance to tie McIlroy at the last also missed, his lengthy eagle putt getting to the hole, but then running 8 feet past. He missed that one, too, a three-putt par leaving Fowler (68) two shots behind McIlroy, and tied with Henrik Stenson (66) for third at 14 under. Fowler finished in the top five of all four major championships this year, yet won none.

In an attempt to avoid a Monday finish, McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger played the 18th hole almost in lockstep with Fowler and Mickelson. All four players teed off, McIlroy and Wiesberger just a few minutes after Mickelson and Fowler, who were heading to their drives but gave the final two the go-ahead to hit.

“It was a classy move for those guys to do that,” McIlroy said. “They could have had us standing and wait on the 18th tee while it was getting dark. It was great sportsmanship and shows the great character of those two guys, and I’m glad they did it.”

Leading by two shots after a tournament-defining birdie minutes earlier at the 17th hole, McIlroy nearly gave it right back when he and Wiesberger were waved on by pushing his tee shot near the water hazard. But his shot remained dry.

Once Mickelson and Fowler hit their second shots and reached the green, McIlroy and Wiesberger hit toward the green as well, setting the stage for the final few, hurried strokes.

The ending might have felt rushed, but it took nothing away from the drama. When he made the turn, McIlroy was trailing by three strokes. Then he went out and shot 32, and hardly missed a shot.

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A weather delay of almost two hours threw the tournament’s final day off schedule, but all that did was delay the on-course electricity, once the rain stopped and enough of the standing water was swept away.

Once that had taken place, it didn’t take long for the dynamics of the tournament to change. McIlroy dropped a pair of early shots, making bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6. The grip he had on the lead was slipping, and the two friends one group ahead of him were too quick and happy to capitalize.

Mickelson went first, holing a 30-footer at the first and a 12-footer at No. 3 that, when McIlroy followed with a three-putt bogey there, drew him into a tie for the lead. Fowler, after a bogey at the second, rallied with birdies on the next three holes. The second birdie, at No. 4, brought a four-way tie for the lead. A chip-in from just off the green at the fifth gave Fowler the lead by himself.

Stenson was the first to join Fowler in the lead, then they were joined by Mickelson. But a birdie by Fowler at the par-5 10th put him in front once again, at 15 under. Mickelson’s chance to tie from 12 feet slid by.

That’s when McIlroy shook himself from his tepid play on the front nine. From 281 yards, McIlroy smacked a low, running 3-wood that reached the 10th green and cozied up 8 feet away. When he buried the eagle putt, he was one behind Fowler. Game on.

Another birdie by McIlroy, this at No. 13, drew him into a tie for the lead. Bogeys up ahead — Fowler at the 14th, Mickelson at No. 16 — gave McIlroy the outright lead, a position he’s been in enough times recently that he knew exactly what to do. His birdie at the par-4 17th — McIlroy bunkered his tee shot, then hit a majestic approach to 10 feet — seemed to be the clincher. The only question was if he could beat the darkness.

He did, barely.

Handed the Wanamaker Trophy not long after for a second time, McIlroy had one last trick up his sleeve. The top of the trophy slid off just as he was reaching for it, headed for the squishy, sloppy turf. But McIlroy instinctively stuck out his hand and caught the falling top.

McIlroy had worked so hard to win the thing in the first place. He wasn’t about to let even one part of it slip away.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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