RORY McIlroy found himself on the ropes in Muhammad Ali’s home city before landing the killer punches on the back nine to win a dramatic 96th US PGA Championship.
In a race against time to finish in daylight following a weather delay, McIlroy’s one-shot overnight lead had turned into a three-shot deficit as he turned for home at Valhalla.
But his challenge was re-ignited by an eagle-3 at the tenth and, as American duo Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson as well as Swede Henrik Stenson faltered when the heat was on, the Northern Irishman returned to the top of the leaderboard when it mattered most.
He regained a share of the lead with a birdie at the 13th then, after Fowler and Mickelson dropped shots at the 14th and 16th respectively, made 3 at the 17th to give himself a two-shot cushion playing the last.
Due to the fading light - a thunderstorm was also closing in - McIlroy and his playing partner, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, played the last hole essentially as a four-ball with Fowler and Mickelson in the group in front.
McIlroy pushed his tee shot and was only a few feet away from straying into the water hazard then watched Mickelson come within a whisker of chipping in for an eagle that would have draw him level with the leader on 16-under.
But, after putting his second into a greenside bunker then splashing out, the world No 1 overcame the fact that it was virtually dark to comfortably two-putt from 34 feet for victory.
In closing with a 68 for a 16-under-par total, he won by a shot from Mickelson (66), with Stenson (66) and Fowler (68) sharing third after the American’s birdie putt horse-shoed out at the last.
It is McIlroy’s fourth major victory and second in this event, having also claimed the Wanamaker Trophy at Kiawah Island two years ago.
This success made it back-to-back majors following his victory in The Open at Hoylake a month ago and three wins in a row after he also claimed the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in between.
McIlroy joins Nick Price (1994), Tiger Woods (2000, 2006) and Padraig Harrington (2008) to win The Open and US PGA Championship in the same year since 1958, when the latter became a stroke-play event.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could have a summer like this,” admitted the man of the moment after receiving the trophy from PGA of America president Ted Bishop. “I’ve played the best golf of my life and today I showed a lot of guys to get this job done.”
Mickelson made the first move with birdies at the first and third to move within a shot of McIlroy before the overnight leader showed early signs of frailty with a poor three-putt at the third, where he left his first effort four feet short.
It left McIlroy tied with both Wiesberger and Mickelson, before Fowler, by holing from seven feet at the fourth, and Stenson, who plonked his approach close at the fifth, joined them on 12-under.
Fowler, who’d earlier found water after pulling his drive at the second, then edged in front of his own by chipping in at the fifth - the first time in his excellent run in this year’s majors that he’d topped a leaderboard.
After a long delay on the tee, McIlroy dropped his second shot of the day by failing to get up and down from a bunker at the sixth, where Wiesberger also had a bogey.
Stenson suddenly put in a surge by making a two-putt birdie at the seventh, holing a ten-footer for par at the eighth then rolling in a 25-foot birdie putt at the ninth as he turned in 30.
He’d joined Fowler on 14-under, with Mickelson making it a three-way tie as he rolled in a ten-footer for his fourth birdie of the day, having also made one two holes earlier.
Fowler started for home by rolling in a 20-foot birdie putt at the tenth to regain the outright lead only to be joined by Mickelson, his playing partner, after he holed a ten-footer for a 2 at the 11th.
McIlroy had been lacking any spark but he stormed back into the picture at the par-5 tenth. It had cost him a double-bogey 7 in the first round; revenge must have tasted sweet as he hit a glorious second from 281 yards to seven feet and holed that for an eagle to close within a shot of Fowler and Mickelson.
It then became a three-way tie again when Stenson birdied the 13th from five feet only to undo that good work immediately as he three-putted the next to fall back to 14-under.
As the excitement reached boiling point, McIlroy hauled himself back into a share of the lead for the first time since the sixth hole. It followed him easing in a six-footer for birdie at the 13th, which was greeted with a real show of emotion as he thrust his first towards the hole.
A badly pushed tee shot cost Fowler a bogey at the 14th and, after Mickelson dropped his first stroke of the day when he couldn’t get up in two from the left rough at the 16th, McIlroy was back where he’d started the day - a shot ahead.
The birdie at the 17th gave him breathing space and, despite seeing that closing tee shot go a lot closer to the water than he’d have liked, a closing par was good enough to see him become the third youngest player after Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus to win four majors.
In the end, it was a case of close but no cigar for Mickelson in his bid to claim a sixth major, while Fowler has now finished fifth, second, second and third in the four majors this season. “This is the first one that hurts as I made a couple of bad swings on the back nine,” said the 25-year-old.
For Mickelson, it was his first top-10 finish since the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship in January. “It was good for me to get back in the mix but I ran out of steam after making a good par putt at the 12th,” admitted the 44-year-old.
On the decision to play the last hole almost simultaneously with McIlroy and Wiesberger, he added: “It wasn’t a big deal and gave everyone a chance to finish, which we did in a nick of time.”