Rory McIlroy last night produced the performance of his burgeoning career – and almost every other career, for that matter – when becoming the youngest player to win on the PGA Tour since Tiger Woods 14 years ago. With a remarkable 62, the Ulsterman – who turns 21 tomorrow – compiled one of the game's greatest final rounds to beat Phil Mickelson at the Quail Hollow Championship by four shots.
Seve Ballesteros happened to be just a few days younger when stunning America in the 1978 Greater Greensboro Open. That also happened to take place in North Carolina. Let the comparisons begin in earnest. After all, McIlroy has some startling substance to match all the hype.
All of the long-trailed potential was realised as at 15-under McIlroy crushed a stellar leaderboard, including the Masters champion. Mickelson went out there believing that a 68 would secure him the $750,000 first prize. Instead, like everyone, he was blitzed.
If the name of McIlroy's nearest pursuer made his second professional victory seem all the more impressive, then it paled into insignificance beside the numbers. Having scraped inside the cut by a single stroke, McIlroy was 16-under for his third and fourth rounds. That is obscene around a course as tough as Quail Hollow.
Certainly the word "outrageous" did not begin to describe yesterday's 10-under, featuring eight birdies, an eagle and, get this, six threes for the final six holes. It all added up to him breaking the course record by two strokes on one of the most revered lay-outs in America. This 62 genuinely ranks up there with the finest rounds played on the PGA Tour for many, many years. It is fair to say McIlroy's coming of age party started two days early.
"I suppose I just got into the zone," he said afterwards. "It's funny, I shot a 61 in Portrush when I was 16 and this felt the same. Everything went right. I didn't know how much under I was. As a youngster I dreamed of this. It's been a crazy ride to get here. I'm just delighted to win my first title in America and to do it on a course like this is."
When McIlroy reached the scorers' hut so many of his fellow pros were there to greet him. They realised something exceptional was unfolding. Lee Westwood high-fived him while there was a hug from Ireland's other favourite golfing son, Padraig Harrington. "That's some bit of stuff," Harrington told him.
It is hard to overstate McIlroy's brilliance, hard to pick out a shot from the 62 which summed up his feat. Maybe the seven-iron from the bunker on the 16th which he span into three feet. But then, the five-iron approach to the par-five 15th which set up his eagle was similarly exquisite. And then, of course, was the obligatory 40-footer rolled in on the final green. In truth, McIlroy was near faultless.
We all knew about the peerless swing, but what we did not know about was the steel inside. He made a mockery of any doubts, pulling clear when players of the calibre of Mickelson and Angel Cabrera loomed up behind. As Nick Faldo put it: "This is one big, big statement. If I was him I'd delay my 21st birthday celebrations a week, because it's the Players Championship next week and if he can stay in the zone he could do anything there."
Yes, he could. But before the focus switches to Sawgrass this tale is worth retelling. McIlroy has endured a miserable time since beginning the year with so much promise with a third in Abu Dhabi and a sixth in Dubai. A back injury meant that his best placing in his next four stroke-play events was a tie for 40th. McIlroy came into Quail Hollow on the back of two missed cuts. The last came at The Masters three weeks ago and as he prepared to leave those hallowed grounds the pained young pro talked of taking an extended break to let his body recuperate.
McIlroy, however, decided to give it another whirl Stateside. Decisions don't get any more inspired. Saying that, he only avoided a third straight "MC" by a shot after a 73 and a 72. With three holes remaining McIlroy seemed destined to join Woods on his premature trip over to The Players. But an eagle on his 16th (the seventh) saved him and the ensuing relief broke his staggering talent free.
He was still nine shots off the lead at that stage, with more than 50 players separating him from the summit. A 66 was followed by that already famous 62. He became the first golfer in four years on the PGA Tour to win after making the cut by a stroke.
Indeed, this was the day when the next generation of champions announced their arrival with unarguable vehemence. In Nagoya, Japan, the 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa carded a 12-under-par 58 to win the Crowns tournament. It was the lowest score ever recorded on a major tour. And perhaps that says everything about McIlroy's weekend with the golfing gods. It was his 62 they were all talking about last night. Even Ryo the remarkable record-breaker had to play second fiddle.