Bubba Watson won the Masters. Martin Kaymer won the U.S. Open. Rory McIlroy won the Open Championship. And all three of those tournaments were colossal bores. It was left to the little sister of golf's majors, the PGA Championship, to deliver a riveting show.
Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and McIlroy were the principals, all tied for the lead on the back nine on Sunday at Valhalla Golf Club. In the end, with daylight nearly gone, McIlroy proved his position as the world's top-ranked golfer, withstanding his greatest challenge ever in a major to capture his second Wanamaker Trophy.
McIlroy won his fourth career major - the other three were runaways - by one shot over a gallant Mickelson, with Fowler and Stenson another stroke back.
The round began nearly two hours late because of torrential overnight rain, so with darkness about to render golf unplayable, the penultimate group of Mickelson-Fowler teed off on the 72nd hole, followed moments later by McIlroy-Bernd Wiesberger. The golfers largely played the 18th as a foursome in a frantic and surreal race to end the tournament.
By then, McIlroy had rebounded from a shaky start, while nearly everyone around him was turning the final round into a birdie-fest amid the softened course conditions, and held a two-stroke edge. His tap-in par was enough to hold off Mickelson, who capped his drama-filled Sunday with a birdie that nearly was an eagle chip-in bid to tie for the lead.
McIlroy, who won the Open Championship and the WGC-Bridgestone back-to-back, took the 54-hole lead as he was bidding for a third straight huge win. But after bogeys on Nos. 3 and 6, he found himself three strokes off the torrid pace of Fowler. The comeback began for McIlroy with a birdie on 7, but he regained a share of the lead with a stirring eagle on the 586-yard 10th.
The Northern Irishman used two more birdies for a back-nine 32 to overtake Mickelson and Fowler, who both stalled in the final six holes, and Stenson. McIlroy shot a 3-under 68, the same as Fowler, while Mickelson and Stenson fired 66s.
For McIlroy, he cemented his standing as No. 1 in the world, he moved to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings and, at 25, he became the third youngest golfer to win four majors, behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
After a year of absolutely nothing from Mickelson, he provided four days of golf theater as only he can. Mickelson said he found something in a final-round 62 at Bridgestone, and he was right. Bidding for his sixth major, Mickelson came away one shot shy. Instead, he found little consolation in his ninth runner-up in a major and his first top 10 of the season, but perhaps some consolation in automatically qualifying for the Ryder Cup. Mickelson moved to fifth in the final standings, and Tom Watson no doubt was thrilled that he won't have to use a captain's pick on Mickelson. The first nine in the standings automatically qualify for the team, and Watson will make his three captain's selections on Sept. 2.
All Fowler did was complete one of the great seasons in major tournament play. The T3 gave him a top-5 in four majors, the first golfer in the Masters era (beginning in 1934) to ever do that without a win. Fowler had a lead on the front nine on Sunday, the first time he had held a lead in a major, and he said afterward that this one hurt more than the other three. But winning a major now seems inevitable for him, and he could be a huge chip for Watson at Gleneagles.
Stenson will not have a season comparable to what he accomplished in 2013, and he had been conspicuously quiet all summer. But a review clearly will show another quality campaign, accentuated by a tie for third in the PGA. The Swede tied for fourth at the U.S. Open and for 16th at the Masters, and he moved up 25 spots in the FedEx Cup standings to No. 67, so he could be around deep into the playoffs.
No, Furyk hasn't won this year, with his inabilities to close well-documented. But at age 44, it's been a wildly successful season using every other metric. Furyk tied for fifth at Valhalla, capping a stellar major-championship season, with a finish no worse a tie for 14th (Masters). Plus he's sixth in the world rankings, fifth in the FedEx Cup standings, so he'll play through the Tour Championship, and second in the Ryder Cup points race, so he has a busy fall ahead. Furyk owners certainly have a right to be frustrated that your guy doesn't win, but he's provided a lot of cash.
It's been a long time since Walker won the most recent of his three 2013-14 tournaments - six months, in fact - but a tie for seventh in the PGA simply extends a remarkable run for the Texan. It gave him a third top-10 in the three U.S.-based majors, and a ninth top 10 overall. After 30 weeks, Walker finally got passed atop the FedEx point standings by McIlroy, but he'll participate in all four playoff events and could be in the mix in any of them, including the Tour Championship. Plus, he qualified for the Ryder Cup team for the first time.
Bradley missed the cut at Valhalla, meaning he will not be among the top nine in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings and, therefore, not an automatic selection. He'll likely be a captain's pick of Watson, but of course, Watson would've liked Bradley to make the squad on points. Despite the poor play this week, Bradley has had a good summer, and is one of the more fiery U.S. golfers, something the Americans are sorely lacking in relation to the Euros.
Simpson is 18th in the FedEx Cup point standings and he has a victory this season, plus seven top 10s -- but he's not going to be on the Ryder Cup team. Simpson missed the cut at the PGA, but being outside the top nine in the Ryder standings, at 15th, he won't get an automatic berth. And despite his good numbers, Simpson's strong play in 2013-14 is significantly front-loaded, with his win coming all the way back in October at the Shriners, and five of his top-10s coming by February.
Spieth has had a terrific sophomore season, as his seventh-place standing in the FedEx Cup points race and automatic selection to the Ryder Cup squad will attest. But he hasn't won, and hasn't had a top-10 outside of the watered-down John Deere Classic in three months. Spieth missed the cut at the PGA and, while he's not exactly limping into the playoffs, it doesn't appear he will be a focal point of them either. Spieth needs to right his game in advance of the Ryder Cup, as Watson will need everyone to step up against the stacked European squad.
What has happened to Martin Kaymer? After winning The Players Championship before running away with the U.S. Open, he was the new No. 1, if not in the OWGR, then in the eyes of the golf public. But that just shows how fickle we all are. Kaymer has done little since then, including a missed cut on the number at Valhalla.
Matt Kuchar and Jason Dufner
Both are hurting and, thankfully for Watson, Dufner was bumped from the automatic nine. Kuchar has qualified in sixth position, but withdrew from the PGA with back woes. Of course, it's a long time until the Ryder Cup in the final weekend of September, but the U.S. will need a full slate of healthy golfers, especially with no Dustin Johnson and the likelihood of no Woods. Dufner, with neck issues, withdrew after 10 holes on Thursday, allowing Zack Johnson to squeak into the ninth position with a measly T70 in Louisville.