KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. Rory McIlroy practically floated down the 18th fairway at the Ocean Course late Sunday afternoon, shaking out his bushy, black hair from beneath his cap and laying his head back to let what he had done wash over him like waves from the Atlantic Ocean beside him.
As a deep crowd of fans encircled the 18th green and chanted his name above the noise of the wind and the waves, McIlroy surrendered to the moment, his battle won in record fashion, the silver PGA Championship trophy perched on a table behind the green.
On a wind-blown course tightly framed by trouble, McIlroy had been at his brilliant best, playing 27 holes on Sunday with just one bogey, shooting 66 in the final round to win his second major championship by eight strokes over European Tour player David Lynn.
Like the ocean framing him, McIlroy’s performance was immense.
Not only did he become the youngest PGA champion (23) and break Jack Nicklaus’s margin-of-victory record, but McIlroy also now has two major victories in 17 starts, one fewer than Tiger Woods needed to do the same thing.
“He was just better than everybody and he made it clear out there,” said Carl Pettersson, who finished in a tie for third with defending champion Keegan Bradley, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter.
It was reminiscent of McIlroy’s U.S. Open victory at Congressional a year ago when he steamrolled the field, winning by eight shots while shooting a record low score. He played nearly flawless golf then and was close to that at the Ocean Course.
After completing the rain-delayed third round Sunday morning and taking a three-stroke lead to lunch, McIlroy set a goal of finishing at12 under par, which meant shooting 67 in the afternoon. He got there with a birdie at the par-5 16th.
By that time, all the challengers were gone. Tiger Woods was tying for 11th. Ian Poulter’s five straight birdies to start the final round had fizzled.
Standing on the 18th tee, seven clear of the field, McIlroy told turned to his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald and said, “We’re going to win this one by eight, as well.”
And he did, pouring in a 20-foot exclamation point birdie on the final green.
“He did what all great players can do. He played the best possible golf as if it had the least possible consequence,” CBS golf commentator David Feherty said. “That’s what great players do. They make it seem like it doesn’t matter when it matters more than anything else to them.”
From the moment on Monday when McIlroy unpacked his belongings inside the Ocean Course locker room and looked out the window at the dunes and ocean beyond the 18th green, he felt a peace. McIlroy told his father, his caddie and his team “something about this just feels right.”
He shot 5-under 67 on Thursday. Then, on Friday, when the wind was screaming and scores were soaring, McIlroy taped together a 75 that wasn’t pretty but may have ultimately been the most important 18 holes he played at Kiawah. He played the weekend 11-under par.
At the Ocean Course, he took on the wind, the rain and everything else brilliantly.
“I called it at the British Open,” Fitzgerald, his caddie, said. “I said this guy is doing to destroy the field. It mightn’t be this week but it’s going to be in the next few tournaments. He was playing so good.”
With a sturdy, athletic swing that has a classic look to it, McIlroy is the model of the modern golfer. He watched, as a child, what Tiger Woods did, and he’s applying his own touches. He has the dual gifts of power and touch and, like Woods at his best, McIlroy has the ability to separate himself from the field when he brings it all together.
He can pound it a mile, make pitch shots dance, and he can smile. When he’s on, he bounces as much as he walks. In the softening sunlight late Sunday afternoon, McIlroy, who had spent his free time on the beach during the week, was aglow.
“Tiger Woods is a once-in-a-lifetime player and Rory McIlroy is at least a once-in-a-decade type player,” Graeme McDowell said. “He’s that good.”
Earlier this year, McIlroy had nine finishes of third or better in a 12-event span, including victories in Hong Kong and at the Honda Classic. Then it went flat.
A playoff loss to Rickie Fowler at the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow was the one bright spot in a spell that started with a 77 in the third round of the Masters. McIlroy missed the cut as defending champion at the U.S. Open. In five events, he missed four cuts and finished 60th in the other.
His relationship with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki became tabloid material. He was criticized for not working hard enough. The former world No. 1, McIlroy slipped to No. 3 and for the first time had his motivation questioned.
“I don’t think I could have answered it in any better way,” McIlroy said. “To be honest, it did motivate me. I did want to go out there and prove a few people wrong. That’s what I did.
“It took me all of four weeks to get my game back in shape and get out of my mini-slump. This is the result.”
The silver Wanamaker trophy was sitting at his right hand.