McIlroy shows grit in PGA win

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- This one was never about talent, even if Rory McIlroy could stretch his from tee to green on the longest par-5s in the world. He showed off his immense skill and athleticism by blowing away the fields in his first two major victories, and in controlling the Open Championship three weeks back as if he had all of Hoylake on a puppeteer's string.

But this? Major No. 4 at age 25? Erasing a three-stroke deficit on the back nine to win the PGA Championship in the dark, a minute after sundown, pumping his fists and releasing a primal scream that surged from his toes as the flashing camera lights bounced off him on the Valhalla stage?

This was a devastating punch thrown in Muhammad Ali's backyard, off the ropes and into history. McIlroy would've made the Louisville Lip proud with his act, too, backing away from his final putt Sunday to search the crowd for his father and coach, to bask in his own glory, and then to talk a little trash to boot.

"To win it in this fashion and this style," McIlroy said after his one-shot victory over Phil Mickelson, "it means a lot. It means that I know that I can do it. I know that I can come from behind. I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a major and come out on top.

"Phil Mickelson, the second best player ... in this generation, to be able to beat him on the back nine on a Sunday, it's great to have in the memory bank and great to have in the locker going forward."

As the successor to Tiger Woods, a champion who has made a lifelong mission out of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record, McIlroy wasn't going with his standard let's-take-this-one-trophy-at-a-time approach. He was high on life after surviving an event that felt more like a triathlon than a good walk unspoiled, an event that might as well have been held in a Brazilian rain forest.

McIlroy spoke of winning the career Grand Slam next April at Augusta National -- OK, he brought that up at Royal Liverpool, too. But he also said Sunday he was now "trying to become the most successful European player ever."

That was a new one.

"And hopefully in time, if I can do that," McIlroy added, "then I can move on and set different goals."

Like someday chasing down Woods at 14 and Nicklaus at 18. Before Sunday night, McIlroy had avoided such hints like he would a greenside bunker.

But young Rory was in the mood to count on this occasion, whether it was the days until the first round of the Masters or the majors won by guys he has either already hurdled or already targeted. On the quest to become the best European of them all, McIlroy brought up Nick Faldo's six and Seve Ballesteros' five. On the non-Euro front, he reminded that his four make him "level with Ernie [Els], level with Raymond Floyd."

The kid had just prevailed in a butt-ugly streetfight, and he could barely contain himself. Entering the day with a one-shot lead, burdened by a long rain delay, McIlroy admitted he was flat on the first half dozen holes. The physical and mental grind of winning at Hoylake and again at Firestone had worn him down, at least until he gave himself this pep talk:

"There's only 12 holes left in this thing. You just have to try and put everything into it."

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