Red-hot favourite Rory poised to make it Major number four at Valhalla

He may still be only 25 years of age but if this last month has told us anything about Rory McIlroy, it is that the kid from Holywood knows how to get the job done.

Red-hot favourite Rory poised to make it Major number four at Valhalla

Where McIlroy’s first two Major victories, at the 2011 US Open and 2012 PGA Championship, had come in a canter, with record-breaking eight-stroke margins, his third was made of different stuff.

Just as at Congressional and Kiawah Island, McIlroy had made all the running at Hoylake three weeks ago, but this wire-to-wire victory at the Open championship had required some grit to go with the style.

The Irishman completed the third leg of a Majors grand slam by digging deep, staying mentally strong and holding his nerve to stave off the challenges of both Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler on the back nine on Sunday and his two-stroke victory was all the more impressive for it.

His victory last Sunday, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, was cut from different cloth again, grinding down Garcia’s lead by gaining the initiative off the tee with some prodigious driving to make two wins from two starts, adding a first World Golf Championships title of his career to those three Majors, elevating him to the top of the world rankings and proving he can win, whatever way it takes.

His form alone has already made McIlroy a red-hot favourite coming into today’s US PGA Championship. The manner of those victories and his previous two Major successes make him even more difficult to ignore as the champion in waiting at Valhalla.

As always in this final Major of the year, the PGA of America pairs the year’s Masters, US Open and Open champions in a marquee group for the first two rounds, meaning Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer will join McIlroy on the first tee in Louisville at 6:45pm Irish time for their first rounds.

All three have interrupted the trend of first-time winners at the Majors by adding to their tallies and McIlroy certainly subscribes to the view that the experience of finishing the job down the stretch on a Sunday puts them at an advantage.

“I think experience and knowing what it feels like to be in that position is a huge thing,” McIlroy said. “It’s a great thing to be able to fall back on, and that’s what you’re seeing with some of the guys coming through now. They have gotten that experience and they have got a little bit more know-how into how to handle that situation better.

“It took me a couple of goes, it really did. It took me a couple of goes to get comfortable with the position of being in the mix in a Major in the back nine on Sunday. You need those experiences to try and help you, and I think a very important part of trying to close out tournaments is having the experience to fall back on.”

What separates McIlroy from the field this week is the form to go with that experience and not just his exemplary driving or the precision iron play that saw him average 79% in greens in regulation at Firestone last week, 20% better than his competition. Not even his putting, the improvements he has made since the Masters being credited by him for his Hoylake victory continuing at the Bridgestone where he finished in the top five in strokes gained.

It is all that and his mental fortitude, not just the strength to grind it out when necessary but the inner serenity he speaks of experiencing when he is on a golf course and playing at the peak of his powers. It is the sort of form that has been described as Tigeresque.

Not the current, creaking Tiger Woods who finally showed up yesterday for a practice round to dispel speculation he would not recover from the fresh back trouble he suffered at Firestone last Sunday. No, this Woods is unlikely to trouble the Wanamaker Trophy engravers this weekend.

Instead it recalls the Tiger in his pomp, the swashbuckling winner of 14 Majors between 1997 and 2008.

Garcia should know, his career has been defined by Major disappointments at the hands of Woods and now McIlroy.

“When they are both at their best, to me it seems like Rory is less afraid of hitting a driver, and when he’s hitting it as well as he’s hitting it now, he’s hitting it very far and quite straight,” Garcia said “So obviously it makes a lot of holes a lot easier, you know, where most of the guys are hitting a 7-iron and he’s hitting a wedge. So it’s a little bit of an advantage at that point.

“You still have to hit a good drive, so it doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Garcia and Fowler look set to be the guys to take the challenge to McIlroy once more, while Adam Scott, the man usurped as world No 1 at the weekend, and Justin Rose are also in great form and have also experienced that winning feeling on a Sunday afternoon at the Majors.

There will be others, of course, with their eyes on the biggest trophy in golf and the $1.8 million (€1.345m) first prize, Europeans and Americans alike with the added incentive of securing Ryder Cup team spots for September at Gleneagles.

Yet on a 7,458-yard Valhalla track designed by his wise old friend Jack Nicklaus that is made for big-hitters off the tee, it all points to McIlroy.

As Garcia said, driving well is not easy but McIlroy is busy making that and everything else about the game of golf look very easy indeed right now.

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