- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- It was a halogen-bright smile of joy, of disbelief and, yes, of relief, too. Rory McIlroy didn't just separate himself from the rest of the PGA Championship field Sunday, but from his doubters.
Did you see McIlroy's face after he snowplowed his way to his second career major? Did you see how hard he buried his head into his father Gerry's left shoulder when they bear hugged just off the 18th green?
McIlroy knew he had done something beyond special. Now he was trying to comprehend it. After all, it's one thing to win, but another to wrap your arms around history.
That's what he did Sunday, make PGA Championship history. Nobody -- not Jack Nicklaus, not Tiger Woods -- has ever won this championship by 8 strokes. McIlroy's victory was so complete that he would have had to take a 12 on the final hole to even force a playoff.
So he smiled. And exhaled. And closed his eyes and dropped his head back. It was as if he were trying to process the moment and cherish it at the same time.
"I allowed myself the luxury of walking up 18 knowing that I was going to win," McIlroy said. "I enjoyed the moment, just let it all sink in."
When he had made the walk from the fairway to the 18th green, his playing partners, Bo Van Pelt and Carl Pettersson, as well as their caddies, purposely lingered behind McIlroy. They had witnessed McIlroy's round firsthand. They knew.
"He was just better than everybody and it was clear just -- it was clear to everybody, I think," Pettersson said.
How could it not be? McIlroy more than lapped the field. He won by eight here. He won by eight at the 2011 U.S. Open. There is no grey area in his major victories.
McIlroy stayed up until about 10:15 Saturday evening watching his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, win her quarterfinal match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. He was up early Sunday morning to finish the rain-suspended third round and began afternoon play at 7-under par and with a 3-shot lead over Pettersson.
Majors hadn't been kind to McIlroy this year. He finished T-40 at the Masters, missed the cut at the U.S. Open and could do no better than a T-60 at the Open Championship. And in case you're keeping count -- and everybody was -- McIlroy also missed consecutive cuts at The Players Championship, the BMW PGA Championship (European Tour) and at The Memorial.
"I was a little frustrated with how I was playing earlier on in the year, but a few people in this room were probably pushing panic buttons for no reason," said McIlroy, as he addressed the media Sunday evening.
The buttons were pushed because no one could figure out why McIlroy was no factor at the majors. So reasons, some of them ridiculous, were invented. McIlroy's least favorite: that his relationship with Wozniacki was eroding his game.
"Yeah, I don't think I could have answered it in any better way," he said, glancing at his new best friend, the Wanamaker Trophy. "And yeah, to be honest, [the criticism] did motivate me. I did want to go out there and prove a few people wrong. That's what I did."
Mostly he proved a lot of people right, beginning with Padraig Harrington.
"I said two years ago, when [McIlroy] lost at the Masters, that he could challenge Jack's record," said Harrington, who finished 12 shots out of the lead. "And now he's won one each of the last two years."
Jack. As in Nicklaus.
Nicklaus has those 18 career majors. Woods has 14. McIlroy already has two just three months after his 23rd birthday.
Geoff Ogilvy, who finished 11 strokes behind McIlroy, first remembers seeing McIlroy when the Northern Irishman/kid was an 18-year-old amateur in the Open Championship at Carnoustie.
"He hit it so well, you say, 'He's got good action, he looks pretty good,'" Ogilvy said. "And every time I've played with him, it's like, this guy, if he keeps it together, he's one of the standouts of that generation, for sure."
And then there is Graeme McDowell, McIlroy's countryman and close buddy. McDowell admits it: he wondered about McIlroy's commitment to the game. Not anymore.
"Maybe a year ago I might have said, 'I don't know,'" McDowell said. "But now I think he is. I think he's learned a lot being inside Caroline's world and watching her and her team help her achieve her goals. He's always been driven and motivated, but now I think he's obsessed and he's got the passion."
And that translates into what exactly?
"He's going to be the player that kids look up to, that kids measure their own wannabe games by," McDowell said. "Ten years ago it was Tiger Woods. It still is Tiger Woods to a certain extent, but now we've got superstars like Rory McIlroy that kids will be looking at."
He wore a red shirt, just like Woods does on Sundays. He embraced his father, just like Woods used to do with his dad Earl. He had a flair for the dramatic, sinking a 20-foot birdie putt on his final hole, just the sort of thing Woods would do when winning a major.
Full disclosure: McIlroy said he wouldn't have worn the Tiger Red had he been paired with Woods.
"Might have to do it from now on," McIlroy said. "No wonder he wins so much."
As early as last Monday, McIlroy felt anything was possible. He stood at his locker in the Ocean Course clubhouse, the one overlooking the putting green, and told his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, as well as his dad, "Something about this just feels right."
And last Wednesday, he was asked to grade his season. He gave himself a B. But that was before he earned extra credit with the PGA Championship and his return to No. 1 in the world rankings.
"A-plus," McIlroy said.
He smiled when he said it.
For the past several months, Rory McIlroy admitted he heard the questions about why his game went south. After Sunday's record-setting win at the PGA, those critics have been silenced, writes ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski.