This time in Georgia, McIlroy has reason to smile by besting Scheffler

Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler have spent two Sunday afternoons playing golf in Georgia this year. And in those precious few hours they have tangoed atop leaderboards, experienced both great victory and the second-best thing, made a little history, walked in each other’s shadow and in general put on the kind of show that you wish would never end.

This Sunday, it was McIlroy’s turn to answer to the title of champion, closing a six-shot gap so quickly you swore they built a Peach Pass lane at East Lake. And in the process, he became the first to win three FedEx Cups – Tiger Woods is stuck at two and unlikely to budge – and left Scheffler to nurse the wounds of a lost lead that wasn’t quite 28-3 but in the same neighborhood.

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Just flip the two names atop the Tour Championship leaderboard and you’ve got the second Sunday in April at Augusta. There it was Scheffler comfortably closing – four-putting the last green and it didn’t matter a bit – to win the Masters. And it was McIlroy, chipping in on 18 for a 64, finishing second in the only major he lacks, and feeling nowhere near as low as his score.

“It was one of the only Sunday evenings driving back from Augusta National where I’ve had a smile on my face,” McIlroy remembered. “I’ve driven away from East Lake quite a few times with a smile on my face.” He has 18 million reasons to smile today, that being the inflationary payout for winning this exclusive season-ending lottery.

Rued Scheffler after the round Sunday, “The final round of the Masters I obviously played great. I got off to a bit of a slow start, but I was still 2 under through 7, something like that, and I was able to kind of cruise there.

“I hit the ball really well today. I just for whatever reason, I couldn’t get enough looks.” (Here’s one reason, discounting the whole hitting the ball well thing: Scheffler shot 3-over 73 Sunday, hit but 8 of 14 fairways in the final round, only 9 of 18 greens in regulation and was dead last in the field in average proximity to the pin on his approaches – just over 46 feet. That’s how six-shot leads go pfffffft.)

There was no denying McIlroy and his final round 66 this Sunday in Georgia. He put behind him the triple bogey he took after hitting his very first shot here this week out of bounds. He ignored the dark math of spotting Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 and FedEx Cup No. 1, a six-shot lead even before unpacking his car because of the staggered scoring system.

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McIlroy remained six shots back after finishing his rain-halted third round Sunday, which was just good enough to get paired with Scheffler in the last group. The two killed a little time eating lunch together before the start of the round. The conversation of people who have made millions playing golf and would be playing for $18 million in one afternoon is a little different than normal folk.

“We talked about the restaurants in Dubai,” McIlroy said. “Collin Morikawa and I were talking sort of about our schedules going forward, and Scottie sat down, and we were just talking about Dubai at the end of the year and sort of just trying to describe the place to Scottie in a way. Anything but the golf and the money.”

Having lunched, they then launched together in the afternoon, McIlroy hardly oozing confidence. “Honestly, I wasn’t really giving myself much of a chance teeing off in the fourth round,” he said.

But when Scheffler three-putted from 66 feet to match McIlroy’s own sloppy bogey on the first, there was the first clue the World’s No. 1 had warts on his game.

And six strokes melted away like lard on a hot griddle. McIlroy upped the temperature, with birdies on four of his next six holes. Scheffler continued to scramble and struggle, posting two more bogeys over that same stretch.

“Thankfully I was in that last group because I was able to put some pressure on him early on, and then that coupled with him not having his best stuff today was actually – I felt like going into the back nine, not that it was mine to lose, but I had all the momentum.”

It was a very locally popular trend. Whether it’s because of McIlroy’s general dynamic demeanor, his long relationship with winning here at East Lake or the stance he has taken as the protector of real meaningful golf over the synthetic LIV Golf substitute, he drew the loudest cheers of the day.

As he fist-pumped over a made 31-foot birdie putt on No. 15, the audience gloried as if he were Georgia’s own. When he seized the lead for good at No. 16, saving par with the help of a flagstick that got in the way of an overcooked chip shot, the place wrapped him in noise. And then came the chants of “Rory, Rory, Rory,” in the dying of the afternoon as he made his way from No. 18 to the scorer’s tent.

While some may see it as somehow unfitting that Scheffler, the most accomplished player of 2022 didn’t claim the season’s biggest prize, there is the counter-argument that a more fitting ending has never been written.

Not just for the fact that beyond the screwy scoring system in play this week, McIlroy put together the low gross score (67-67-63-66, 17 under). But also for the reason that who better to take the PGA Tour’s big season-ending stage than the man who has been most vocal in defending it against the poachers at LIV?

“I’ve been in the thick of things. I guess every chance I get, I’m trying to defend what I feel is the best place to play elite professional golf in the world,” he said. “It’s in some ways fitting that I was able to get this done today to sort of round off a year that has been very, very challenging and different.”

He earned at least one more opportunity to fire across the bow of the rival Saudi-backed circuit and those who have defected to it. So, here it was from his post-round presser: “I hate what it (the fracture caused by LIV) is doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do.”

An upcoming trip to play in England will put him in the company of several players who have gone over to LIV and, he said, “It’s going to be hard for me to stomach going to Wentworth in a couple of weeks’ time and seeing 18 of them there. That just doesn’t sit right with me.”

As the tumult drags on, McIlroy showed Sunday that he still has the goods to be a force for good on and off the course. That he’s able to prove this time and again – and maybe yet again – close to our own home is a bonus.

It’s like he told Scheffler after their round Sunday, “We’re 1-1 in Georgia.”

“He got the one in April and I got this one, and we’ll do it all over again in a few months’ time.”