Louisville, Kentucky: First the rain came, flooding an already soft and vulnerable Valhalla Golf Club on Sunday afternoon until the greens were ponds and the fairways were streaked by flowing rivulets.
The leader board heading into the final round was stocked with golf's elite, and the combination of talent and a vulnerable, receptive course foreshadowed a showdown of aggressive, attacking shot-making.
The previous three major championships this year had been notable for their lack of drama as the eventual winners took comfortable leads into the final hours and cruised to weighty if wearisome victories.
By contrast, the final round of the PGA Championship was a taut battle more like a heavyweight prizefight. Four men climbed into the ring and exchanged birdies at a sizzling pace in close quarters.
Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson took turns holding at least a piece of the tournament lead across four hours of major championship anxiety. Racing to be done before sunset because the rain had delayed the tournament by nearly two hours, they briskly charged and parried until McIlroy found the resolve to make a pivotal birdie at the 17th hole and held on with a par on the 18th to claim a one-shot victory over Mickelson. ('Most satisfying win ever')
McIlroy's final-round 68 put him at 16 under par for the tournament. Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson finished two shots back at 14 under. (After split with Wozniacki, McIlroy begins his true romance with golf)
It was McIlroy's second major victory of the season, his second PGA Championship and the fourth major title of his young, flourishing career. With his previous three major titles, including this year's British Open, McIlroy, 25, protected a big lead in the final round. On Sunday, McIlroy had to rally and persevere. In that way, it may be his greatest performance in a major championship. (Pics)
McIlroy began the day with a one-stroke lead, but not long after he teed off, he found himself in a five-way tie. Within an hour, he had lost the lead entirely.
Mickelson made the initial charge, rolling in a 29-foot birdie putt on the first hole to move two shots behind McIlroy and making a 10-footer for another birdie at the third hole. Minutes later, McIlroy became a little tentative on a 3-foot par putt at the third hole, and his ball slid past the right edge of the cup.
That put Mickelson and McIlroy in a tie for the lead at 12 under par for the tournament. Ten minutes later, Fowler joined the party with a birdie at the fourth hole to also go to 12 under. Moments later, Stenson birdied the fifth hole and Bernd Wiesberger birdied the third, which put five golfers at the top of the leader board at 12 under.
Wiesberger would fade, but Fowler was just getting started. He leapt ahead at the fifth hole, chipping in from just off the green to take a one-shot lead. Stenson caught him a few holes later. McIlroy dropped back when his 6-foot putt for par at the sixth hole did not come close to the cup, dropping him two strokes off the lead.
At the ninth hole, Mickelson's approach shot stopped 10 feet from the green. A big gallery surrounded the green and then roared as Mickelson curled in the right-to-left birdie putt to tie him with Fowler and Stenson at 14 under.
The back-and-forth was only beginning. Fowler sank a 28-foot uphill birdie putt at the 10th hole to jump ahead again. McIlroy watched that sequence from the 10th fairway, 280 yards away. He then swatted his ball with a fairway wood, and by the time it came to rest, it was 7 feet from the hole.
McIlroy, the only player to reach the 10th green in two shots on Sunday, made the eagle putt to draw one shot behind Fowler.
Fowler went to 15 under at the 10th hole, and Mickelson tied him with an 11-foot birdie putt on the 11th. The fierce competition continued unabated - Mickelson making a nearly impossible par save at the 12th and Stenson regaining a piece of the lead at the 13th, then giving it back with a botched short putt on the next hole.
McIlroy missed a 6-foot birdie chance at the 12th, then made a 9-footer for birdie to tie Fowler and Mickelson for the lead. McIlroy pugnaciously pumped his fist as the ball fell in the hole. Then Fowler bogeyed the next hole.
The duck, dodge and charge continued until Stenson failed to capitalize on the easy birdie opportunity at the par-5 18th. On the 17th hole, McIlroy blasted out of a fairway bunker, left his ball 11 feet from the hole and made the putt for birdie and a two-shot lead.
On the next hole, McIlroy did something highly unusual for tournament golf, let alone a major. He ran ahead and joined Mickelson and Fowler, who had already hit their shots, on the 18th tee.
After Mickelson and Fowler walked part of the way down the hole, McIlroy hit a driver in an effort to finish before the enveloping darkness made it pragmatically impossible to finish the final hole.
With the group now playing as a foursome, Mickelson almost chipped in for an eagle that would have tied him with McIlroy. He birdied instead. Fowler, putting in near darkness, had his birdie putt lip out to drop him two strokes back.
McIlroy hit his second shot in the greenside bunker at the par-5 18th hole, but he put it on the green and made a nervous two-putt to maintain his lead.
Play at the tournament was suspended at 12:53 p.m. Sunday when torrential rains bombarded the course, left standing water on seemingly every fairway and turned some greens into little ponds. The storm drove several hundred spectators back to their cars.
Once there, they found grass parking lots that now resembled swamps. Since Friday, Valhalla Golf Club has seen nearly 2.5 inches of rain.
Once the rain stopped about 25 minutes later, work crews began to use squeegees to thrust the accumulated rainwater into the course's drainage areas. It was a colossal task. The low-lying practice range, which had to open so the leaders could warm up, was submerged.
But within an hour, the sun emerged and much of the standing water receded. Play resumed at 2:44, and the tee time of the final pairing of McIlroy and Wiesberger was announced for 4:19. The hope was that the final duo could play in about four hours and beat the 8:43 sunset.
McIlroy's final putt fell into the 18th hole at 8:43 p.m.
© 2014 New York Times News Service