Rory McIlroy’s journey for fifth major championship title returns to Valhalla

Hope that McIlroy will finally end his long victory drought in major championships has gradually waned since he won both the Open and US PGA in 2014.

Phil Casey
Monday 13 May 2024 12:00 BST
Rory McIlroy returns to the scene of his last major victory in 2014 for this week’s US PGA Championship at Valhalla (John Walton/PA)
Rory McIlroy returns to the scene of his last major victory in 2014 for this week’s US PGA Championship at Valhalla (John Walton/PA) (PA Archive)

According to Rory McIlroy, his choice of song to celebrate winning the Zurich Classic last month was a combination of limited options and knowing at least some of the words.

For those seeking some hidden meaning behind the selection of an 80s power ballad from American band Journey, the title and lyrics of karaoke classic “Don’t Stop Believin'” spoke volumes.

Belief that McIlroy will finally end his long victory drought in major championships has gradually waned as the years have passed since he won both the Open Championship and US PGA Championship in 2014.

There have been 20 top-10s since but around the same number of missed cuts as genuine near-misses, the most recent of the latter coming in the 2022 Open at St Andrews and last year’s US Open in Los Angeles.

Chances to win the Masters and complete the career grand slam have also been few and far between and a missed cut last year was followed with a listless share of 22nd in April as Scottie Scheffler claimed a second green jacket in the last three years.

Yet just when that belief might have been in danger of disappearing entirely, a rejuvenated McIlroy enjoyed – in every sense of the word – victory in the Zurich Classic alongside Shane Lowry and played some brilliant shots under pressure over the closing stretch.

That win prompted the unexpected demonstration of McIlroy’s vocal abilities during the tournament’s post-round concert at TPC Louisiana, where a cover band called “The Molly Ringwalds” struck PR gold thanks to the world number two and numerous social media clips going viral.

And just two weeks later, McIlroy stormed to a fourth victory in the Wells Fargo Championship, the ideal preparation for a return to Valhalla and the site of that last major win almost 10 years ago, the US PGA then being staged in August but having switched to May from 2019.

McIlroy was in imperious form in 2014 after lifting the Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool, taking a week off and then winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.

Rounds of 66, 67 and 67 gave McIlroy a one-shot lead over Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger heading into the final round, a round which saw play suspended for almost two hours due to torrential rain on an already saturated course.

McIlroy admits he was lethargic following the delay and covered his first six holes in two over par to briefly fall three behind Rickie Fowler, before getting back on track with a birdie on the seventh.

“I hit this really cool chip over the bunker and made birdie there and then the eagle on 10 was where everything turned around,” McIlroy told The Quadrilateral podcast.

“The luckiest golf shot of my life. I remembered that I had hit one OB (out of bounds) left on 10 so I was trying to hit this high draw. Instead, I hit this low necky cut that ran up onto the green to six feet.

“I’d gotten maybe one behind at that point and Ricky and Phil [Mickelson] fist-pumped each other walking off 11 green. That almost felt like two-on-one in a way.

“And I was like, ‘I’m going to get these guys’. And then honestly, I hardly missed a shot on the way in.”

Birdies on the 13th and 17th gave McIlroy a two-shot lead but, with daylight fading fast, the group of Fowler and Mickelson in front had to be persuaded to stand aside to allow McIlroy and Wiesberger to tee off on the 18th.

“I knew if I made par on 18 it was probably going to be good enough,” McIlroy added.

“And I didn’t want to have to sleep on that tee shot going into Monday. I probably exerted a little bit more of my will than I’m used to with the PGA officials to be like, ‘No, I think we can get this done’.

“I don’t think the group ahead was very happy with that.”

Mickelson came agonisingly close to holing the eagle chip he needed to potentially force a play-off and McIlroy’s par from a greenside bunker sealed a second major win in the space of 21 days.

More than 3,500 days later, McIlroy again travels to Valhalla on the back of wins in his last two starts. Deja vu anyone?

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