CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rory McIlroy predicted the comeback. He talked with reporters after finishing tied for fourth at The Open and saw how Jordan Spieth had squandered a three-shot advantage, fallen behind, then tied Matt Kuchar by nearly making an ace on the back nine at Royal Birkdale.
“He’s a fighter,” McIlroy said of Spieth. “He’s shown that through his short career. He can dig himself out of these holes. … It would be great for the game if he does it. He’s an absolute star, and it would be great to see him win another one.”
Spieth pulled it off, capturing the Claret Jug in dramatic fashion to win his third major championship and put himself just a PGA Championship win away from completing the career Grand Slam. A day later, McIlroy was saying at a corporate event that he “desperately” wanted to deny Spieth that chance this week at Quail Hollow by winning the tournament himself and going after his own career slam at the Masters.
But as the year’s final major championship approached, McIlroy reassessed and took a more pragmatic approach.
“Jordan has a great chance at doing it, which would be huge for the game,” McIlroy said. “Tiger [Woods] was able to do it at 24, and Jordan has a great chance to do it at the same age, which is historic in itself.
“Look, I think I have a great record at Quail Hollow, I feel like I have a good chance, but I don’t think there was any greater sense of urgency. My chance doesn’t come until April next year, so I can play well; but, if Jordan plays better, then Jordan plays better and I take my hat off to him and he’s done something that the game’s only seen a couple of times.”
No one would guarantee McIlroy the Wanamaker Trophy this week, but if ever you were to pencil in a player to win a major championship at a specific venue, his name would be the one to scribble down next to “PGA, Quail Hollow, 2017.”
The Northern Irishman fired a final-round 62 to win his first PGA Tour title at the course in 2010, then won at Quail Hollow again in 2015 after a playoff loss against Rickie Fowler in 2012.
And as the PGA Championship begins Thursday at the familiar venue, McIlroy couldn’t help but think about it.
“I guess there’s courses that you know you’re going to go to that you’ve played well at before and it’s not going to be too much different just because it’s a different tournament,” McIlroy said. “It’s the same golf course, sort of same shots you need to hit. Yeah, it’s been on my mind for a while, this is one that I’ve got a good chance at.”
Several factors have conspired to turn what seemed a good bet into a risky proposition, though.
McIlroy, 28, has spent much of 2017 fighting a rib injury that has either kept him from playing or rendered him rusty.
And then there is Spieth, who rolls into the PGA Championship gunning for history. The 24-year-old would complete the career Grand Slam with a win at Quail Hollow (where he has played just once). And that means beating McIlroy to the feat, something that wasn’t on anyone’s radar when Rory won the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla to put himself a victory at the Masters away from becoming just the sixth player to win all four majors in a career.
The career Grand Slam is somewhat underrated among golf’s accomplishments, perhaps because the first to do it were unaware at the time that they were accomplishing something special.
Gene Sarazen (1935 Masters) and Ben Hogan (1953 Open) played in an era when the concept was not really part of the golf consciousness, although Hogan did it by winning at Carnoustie in the only time he played that championship. It was also the last of his nine major titles.
Gary Player (1965 U.S. Open) was very aware of the feat, and dearly wanted to beat Jack Nicklaus (1966 Open) and Arnold Palmer to the career slam. Nicklaus was more blasé about it, saying many times that his focus was simply on winning The Open, which he did at Muirfield.
After Nicklaus, no one completed the career slam until Tiger Woods in 2000, when, in consecutive majors, he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach and then The Open by eight shots at St. Andrews.
That gave him the career slam at age 24, and four major championships total. No golfer was in position to do it again until Phil Mickelson won the 2013 Open, leaving him needing the U.S. Open (where he’s been runner-up a record six times). McIlroy has finished in the top 10 three times at the Masters since winning the 2014 PGA to give himself three of the four majors but has never been a serious Sunday contender at Augusta since his second-nine collapse in 2011.
“Winning the [career] Grand Slam is unquestionably one of the highlights of my career,” Woods said in an email to ESPN.com. “To be grouped with Mr. Sarazen, Mr. Hogan, Jack and Gary is a tremendous honor. Also, to complete the Grand Slam at St. Andrews made it even more special. To walk up 18 and hear the crowd’s reaction at the birthplace of golf is something I’ll never forget.”
Woods also made reference to the fact that the next three major championships will offer an opportunity to see the career slam completed: Spieth at the PGA, McIlroy at the Masters and Mickelson at the U.S. Open, to be played at Shinnecock Hills — where Mickelson was second in 2004.
“It’s great for the game that Jordan, Rory and Phil are all going for the Grand Slam,” Woods said. “Jordan having a chance at Quail Hollow adds a lot of excitement to the tournament. All three are outstanding players who always have a shot in a major.”
If Spieth is feeling any pressure in trying to join the club right away, he is not showing it. He has taken the approach that he’ll have many opportunities to win the PGA Championship. But it does help, he said, to feel good about his game. After winning the Travelers Championship and The Open with furious finishes, he tied for 13th last week at the WGC-Bridgestone after a final-round 68 on Sunday.
“I think I’m in form, and form is a huge part of being in contention, obviously,” Spieth said. “But when you feel that way going in, it feels that much easier to get into contention. I’m not really finding any negatives in this.
“It’s just a major. I say that, [but] they are still the four events that we try to peak for and think most about at the beginning of the year. But this PGA, if I’m healthy and playing well, I play in 30 of them, I believe I’ll have plenty of chances to win them, but it doesn’t have to be this year. If it’s this year and it happens, that’s great, that’s another lifelong goal that we’ve then achieved. But I believe that’ll I’ll do it someday.”
“I guess there’s courses that you know you’re going to go to that you’ve played well at before and it’s not going to be too much different just because it’s a different tournament. It’s the same golf course, sort of same shots you need to hit. Yeah, it’s been on my mind for a while, this is one that I’ve got a good chance at.”
Rory McIlroy, two-time winner at Quail Hollow
There is nothing wrong with Spieth’s approach. His attitude is that he’s already had a great year and that, while his game is in good shape, he’d rather take a more casual approach toward the PGA this week than put any needless pressure on himself.
But there is a cautionary tale. Of the 11 other players who achieved three of the four legs of the career Grand Slam, two of them are legendary names in the game who never won the PGA: Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson. Palmer, who won seven major championships, had six top-10s and two runner-up finishes at the PGA. Watson, who won eight majors, had nine top-10s and one runner-up at the PGA. He lost in a playoff against John Mahaffey in 1978.
The PGA also presents the deepest field of the four majors. The Masters has a small field, usually fewer than 100 players, with amateurs and past champions offering little threat. The U.S. Open and The Open each have amateur spots as well as qualifiers from around the world, but the PGA is for pros only and typically goes more than 100 deep in the world rankings.
No one knows the perils better than Mickelson, who surprisingly won The Open in 2013 after a heartbreaking defeat a month earlier at the U.S. Open, where he finished second for the sixth time. That remains the only major he has not won.
“I think that’s the sign of a complete, great player,” Mickelson said of the career Grand Slam. “There’s five players who have done it, and those five players are the greats of the game. You look at them with a different light.”