Rory McIlroy answered his critics in emphatic fashion when he closed with an incredible run of six successive threes to win the Quail Hollow Championship by four shots from Phil Mickelson - smashing the course record by two with a scintillating, bogey free 10 under par 62 to secure his maiden PGA Tour victory in grandstand fashion on 15 under par.
The Holywood star, who does not turn 21 until Wednesday, became the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since world No 1 Tiger Woods claimed the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic aged 20 years, nine months and 20 days in 1996.
Flabbergasted that he had played the last 36 holes in 16 under par, McIlroy said: “I just got in a zone and didn’t realise that I was going eight, nine, 10 under. I just knew that I got my nose in front and I was just trying to stay there.”
Asked if he’d dreamt of such a day as a youngster, he said: “I did. Ever since I was 10 or 11 years old I wanted to be a professional golfer. It’s been a crazy run to up this point and I am just delighted to get here and get my first win in the US on a course like this is really special.
“I am going to have a bit of a (21st birthday) party on Tuesday night down in Sawgrass. If I was back home and had a win like this, I’d be having a good one tonight.
“Coming off a 16 under weekend like this I need to let it sink in for a few days and get my head around going to the Players.”
As for his closing 62, which featured 12 threes, he said: “It’s ridiculous. I shot 61 around Portrush when I was 16 in the North of Ireland and it felt pretty similar today. I was just seeing my shots and hitting it and seeing the line of putts really well and everything was going in. It was one of those days where everything went right.”
Congratulated by Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Jim Furyk at the finish, McIlroy beamed: “I just said to Westwood: ‘That’s how you finish of a golf tournament! Padraig said, ‘That was some bit of stuff.’ I appreciate the guys that stayed around to see me in. It means a lot.”
Tied with the lead with Angel Cabrera heading down the stretch, McIlroy was six under for the day when he birdied the 14th to go two clear of a chasing pack that included the Argentinian and Masters champion Phil Mickelson.
But the best was yet to come as he spectacularly eagled the par-five 15th to go three clear, birdied the 16th from four feet, lipped out with a 54 foot birdie try at the dangerous par three 17th and then capped a remarkable performance by draining a long bomb from 42 feet for a roof-raising birdie at the 18th.
Just three weeks after threatening to take time out to sort out his head after missing the cut at the Masters, McIlroy stormed home in 30 blows to underline just why players like Woods, Ernie Els and Geoff Ogilvy have hailed him as a world number one in waiting.
After missing the cut in his last two starts, his season changed utterly on Friday when he eagled the par five seventh, his 16th, to make the cut on the one over par mark. After that he was off and running and no one could live with him.
He fired a six under par 66 on Saturday to scorch up the leaderboard and go into the final round just four strokes behind overnight leader Billy Mayfair on five under par.
But in the final round he was simply unbeatable as he tore Quail Hollow to shreds with one of the greatest final round performances ever seen on the PGA Tour.
He birdied the fourth from 10 feet and then moved into top gear with a hat-trick of birdies from the seventh, surging to the top of the leaderboard alongside two-time major winner Angel Cabrera on nine under par.
He failed to birdied the par-five 10th and Cabrera, who was playing in the group behind, took advantage there to edge a stroke clear.
But McIlroy had the bit between his teeth and after a 142-yard wedge to three feet gave him a birdie at the 11th and a share of lead with the Argentinian, he found an even higher gear.
After a par four at the 12th, he finished with an incredible run of six successive threes to complete a victory for the ages.
Cabrera missed four foot birdie chance on the 11th and then fluffed a delicate chip at the 12th and bogeyed to leave McIlroy alone at the top.
McIlroy then drove into the greenside bunker at the 284-yard, par four 14th, splashed out to ten feet and rolled in the putt with a clenched fist salute to go two clear of Cabrera, Brendan de Jonge, Bo Van Pelt and Mickelson on 11 under.
His lead was reduced to just one shot moments later when Cabrera birdied the driveable 14th but McIlroy responded with one of the shots of the season at the par-five 15th.
After a 325 yard drive, he rifled a 207-yard five iron at the pin and watched as the ball took the slope and rolled up to just three and a half feet, setting up a facile eagle three which put him three clear on 13 under.
But there was more to come. At the 16th he drove into a fairway bunker but clipped a perfect 167-yard seven iron to four feet and rolled the putt home.
For a while it looked as though Harrington would set a formidable clubhouse target when he birdied the sixth, eagled the par five seventh and then racked up three birdies on the trot at the 13th, 14th and 15th to get to eight under par.
But the Dubliner, who was seven strokes behind Mayfair starting the day, failed to get up and down for par at the treacherous 16th and 17th, carding a 68 that eventually left him tied for seventh on six under par.
Harrington was one fo the first to slap McIlroy on the back as he walked off the 18th. But as he waited to see if McIlroy could close the deal, Harrington said: “I think it means a lot for him. We can talk about European golf afterwards, but it’s a big deal for him to come over here and start winning over here.
“He wasn’t contending, wasn’t winning, and if he can get across the line it makes it a lot easier for him going forward, and I think it could make a big difference to his career.
“It’s a lot of pressure on him, a lot of focus on the home, and it’s putting him under enormous pressure to deliver, and obviously every week that he doesn’t deliver, it’s getting on him. But you know, if he can win here, it eases it all off.”