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Rory McIlroy is player to beat at PGA Championship

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He comes to bluegrass country galloping like a thoroughbred.

In his last two starts, Rory McIlroy has won the British Open to join Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win three majors at 25 and
the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to regain the No. 1 ranking in the world.

Still, McIlroy wants nothing to do with ‘‘era’’ talk.

‘‘I’ve had a great run of golf,’’ McIlroy said Tuesday at Valhalla, where the PGA Championship begins Thursday. ‘‘[But] I’m not sure you can call that an era or the start of an era. If [I] read
everything that’s being written, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.’’

He’s right. The way Martin Kaymer blitzed the U.S. Open field, the way Bubba Watson has taken ownership of Augusta National, the way any number of players can grab golf by the throat for a week, it’s a little early to anoint McIlroy.

But golf is searching for its next great superstar. That’s
especially true with Tiger Woods struggling with back problems and Phil Mickelson battling to match his performance to his reputation.

‘‘Just makes me feel old,’’ Mickelson, 43, said of being paired with players from the McIlroy generation. ‘‘When somebody says, ‘I used to watch you on TV when I was 6,’ how do you respond to that?’’

While Mickelson put on a marvelous show to win the 2013 British Open and while he shot an eye-opening 62 in the final round Sunday at the Bridgestone Invitational, he hasn’t had a season that says he’s ready to step up at Valhalla.

Like the rest of the golf world, Mickelson is impressed with

‘‘He’s such a great driver of the golf ball,’’ Mickelson said. ‘‘As long as he keeps playing to his [driver] strength, he’s going to be making birdies and winning golf tournaments.’’

Unlike Woods, who seems to be trying to win tournaments with every practice swing, McIlroy has the blessing of youth. You can hear Woods’ majors clock ticking with every swing; McIlroy might as well be out for a round with his pals.

Before his wire-to-wire vic-
tory last month in the British Open at Hoylake, McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA by a combined 16 strokes.

‘‘What’s going through my head when I approach each shot is just that shot,’’ McIlroy said. ‘‘That’s what I feel when I’m mentally at my best on the golf course. It’s approaching every shot as if that’s the only shot that day and not getting ahead of yourself, thinking about your score or thinking about where you are in the tournament or on the leaderboard. I’m staying in the present.’’

The rest of us can ponder the kind of statement McIlroy would make with a third consecutive victory Sunday at Valhalla.

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