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Two of the most endearing elements of Rory McIlroy’s US PGA Championship week were visible away from the golf course.
McIlroy provided a superb tribute both to camera and in print towards Bill Clinton. The former president of the United States was handed a Distinguished Service award by the PGA of America, with McIlroy leading the plaudits with words of genuine warmth. Clinton’s influential role in the Northern Ireland peace process, McIlroy insisted, was pivotal to the golfer’s generation being able to fulfil their life objectives in peace.
The boyish, bashful side of McIlroy appeared when he was informed that Jack Nicklaus had offered some weighty praise in his direction. McIlroy, Nicklaus has claimed, can win “15 or 20” major championships. Sunday’s success at Valhalla means McIlroy is already a fifth of the way towards the latter number.
As McIlroy well knows, we live in an age of constant comparison; as difficult as that is in the case of separate golfing generations. There was rising talk about where McIlroy’s career will take him in the context of the greatest golfers in history before he won a second US PGA title. Since 1934, only Nicklaus and Tiger Woods had won their fourth major before the age of 26; until McIlroy reclaimed the Wanamaker Trophy in Kentucky. If he claims the Masters in April, McIlroy will hold three majors at the same time.
“I thought winning the Open Championship a few weeks ago had sort of put me on a higher level in this game,” McIlroy explains. “But then to win a fourth, to be one behind Phil [Mickelson], one behind Seve Ballesteros, level with Ernie Els, level with Raymond Floyd … I mean, I never thought I’d get this far at 25 years of age.”
Not that McIlroy is planning to stop here. Far from it; he has lofty and legitimate aspirations in respect of his home continent.
“I think I’ve got to take it one small step at a time,” McIlroy said. “I think the two next realistic goals are the career [majors] grand slam and trying to become the most successful European player ever.
“Nick Faldo, most successful European ever in the modern era, has six majors. Seve has five. Obviously with the career grand slam coming up at Augusta in eight months’ time, they are the next goals.
“And hopefully, when I achieve those, I can start to think about other things. But right now, that’s what my focus is. My focus is trying to complete this grand slam and then move forward and try and become the most successful European ever, and hopefully in time – if I can do that – then I can move on and set different goals.
“I’ve got that sense of belief in myself now that I go into every tournament I play knowing that I can win. It’s a great feeling to have.”
McIlroy is better placed to hunt down Nicklaus’s majors record of 18 than a diminished Woods is, regardless of the current gap between their totals. More intriguing is the potential impact McIlroy could have on a sport which is crying out for an icon because of Woods’s inevitable, if sad, demise.
“It’s always hard to compare players,” says Henrik Stenson, who tied third at Valhalla. “If he’s not the same [as Woods], he’s not far behind. He’s got every opportunity to move on from here.
“If I told you that if he were to win at least one major in the next five or seven years every year, you wouldn’t be surprised, would you? He’s got the opportunity to do that. It’s up to him and how hard we can try to make it not happen.”
McIlroy is entitled to cherish his latest triumph for one reason alone; it was different. By his own admission, he was “flat” during the early stages of his US PGA fourth round. The 25-year-old’s previous three successes on the big stage had been delivered as processions.
This time he hung in, dug deep and battled back just when others had been offered glimmers of hope. There is clearly a part of McIlroy that relishes proving people wrong; this time, those who dared suggest he couldn’t come out on top in scraps.
Rory McIlroy poses with the Wanamaker Trophy in fading light after winning the 2014 US PGA Championship. Photograph: Thomas J Russo/USA Today Sports
“To win it in this fashion and this style, it means a lot,” McIlroy explains. “It means that I know that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind. I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a major and come out on top.
“Phil Mickelson is the second best player in this generation so to be able to beat him on the back nine on a Sunday … it’s great to have in the memory bank and great to have in the locker going forward.”
Mickelson summed up McIlroy’s status in the game simply. “He is better than everyone else,” said the 2013 Open champion.
McIlroy’s coach, Michael Bannon, is worthy of praise for his influence on what is obviously a wonderful golf swing. This year, there is also a flow and rhythm to McIlroy’s putting stroke which matches other parts of his game. At Valhalla, the latest indicator that he is the complete sporting package arrived by virtue of the mental fortitude McIlroy displayed over Sunday’s back nine.
McIlroy doesn’t intend to pick up a golf club during a week off which will begin in New York. Not that his competitive year is in any way over; the lucrative FedEx Cup series is next up, with the Ryder Cup and Race to Dubai to be settled before McIlroy rounds off what is already a massively successful year in Australia.
Success has energised, rather than fatigued, the man from Holywood but he is wary of the demands placed on a global superstar, as he now very much is.
“It makes you appreciate more what Tiger has done in the past by getting on these runs that he’s gone on and keeping it going for months on end,” McIlroy adds. “I think that’s why off-weeks are important. I think this week for me is going to be very important just to recharge the batteries and get ready for the big stretch of golf that we’ve still got coming up.”
How McIlroy has earned that downtime. His fellow competitors won’t be upset if he chooses to enjoy some more of it – McIlroy has proved himself as close to unstoppable.