A year ago at East Lake, Rory McIlroy was a speed bump in the great Tiger Woods stampede. Paired with Woods in the fourth round of that Tour Championship, his only imperative was to survive as the crowd surged onto the 18th fairway, enveloping the players for a moment. Just getting out of here with his wallet and all his toenails was a victory.
Sunday, he made the walk with the thousands of well-oiled escorts filing in behind him in a slightly gentler version of what is now, we guess, a Tour Championship tradition of dropping the gallery ropes before dropping the final curtain.
This time, the chants were “Rory, Rory, Rory” rather than “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger.” This time the moment was all his, as well-earned as any of the other 16 PGA titles, major or otherwise, he has ever won.
“Amazing how different things can be in a year,” the Northern Irishman noted.
While not on the property this year, Woods walked symbolically with McIlroy up the fairway this year. For now, after Sunday, these are the only two men who have won multiple FedEx Cups.
“Any time you’ve done something that only Tiger’s done, you’ve done something right,” McIlroy said.
What staggered scoring system? What new format? McIlroy played the best golf this week, shot the lowest combined score in the 30-man field (13 under), and won the big prize at the end. Nothing so difficult to understand about any of that.
In winning the $15 million for taking the FedEx Cup, McIlroy was relentless Sunday. In the 31 holes he completed this day — players had to finish off the storm-delayed third round Sunday morning — he was 7 under. He matched the low score of the final round with a 66.
He wobbled with back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15 coming in Sunday afternoon, his lead shrinking momentarily to two strokes. But such was his cushion and such was his resilience — how about those consecutive birdies on 17 and 18? — that McIlroy never really seemed to have to sweat it out for his $15 million.
Starting this tournament at 5 under with the staggered scoring system in place, behind four other players at the beginning while giving as many as five strokes to Justin Thomas, McIlroy still turned this Tour Championship into something of a rout. His adjusted 18 under was four shots better than Xander Schauffele, and five ahead of Thomas and Brooks Koepka.
When they finished the third round early Sunday, Koepka emerged with a one-shot lead over McIlroy. The two have been almost inseparable the last month, Sunday being the eighth time they’ve been paired together over that span. Even if only one of them has posed naked lately, they made up the sexiest possible twosome of those on the grounds this day.
“(McIlroy’s) game is in great form right now, said Koepka, the world’s No. 1 player. “It's really impressive to watch. Like I've said multiple times, he's the most fun to watch when he's playing well. He hits it so good, he putts it really well, and when he's on, man, he's tough to beat.”
Koepka came apart on the tee in the fourth round. He hit only five of 14 fairways, one miss on No. 7 so wild left that it is missing to this day. That led to a triple bogey that really turned Koepka inside-out. Three straight bogeys on the back side completed his undoing.
And Thomas, the former FedEx Cup points leader, remember him? The two-stroke lead he brought to East Lake as part of the staggered scoring format disappeared faster than a gambler’s last chip. He never could recover from his own tragic triple bogey on the par 4 16th early Sunday while concluding his third round. A shanked approach, a chunked pitch that rolled back off the green and into the thick Bermuda, another clumsy pitch and a three-putt. Not the work of a would-be FedEx Cup champion.
“Just really had a couple freakish, bizarre, stupid mistakes this week,” Thomas said. “I made a double on Thursday with a pitching wedge in my hand on a par-3. And then I made a 7 this morning with a 9-iron in the middle of the fairway. I mean, that's five, six strokes, and could potentially have cost me the FedExCup.”
As for the winner, he said he was quite happy with the new system for determining a FedEx Cup champion. “It’ll take a while to get used to, but I think for the first run of it, it went well,” McIlroy said.
In rewriting the rules for the FedEx Cup — again — the PGA Tour had sought out some of the best minds in the country for the important task of fiddling with a system to make rich golfers richer.
To MIT and the Sloan School of Management the Tour turned. It’s said the big brains ran a million simulations with the new format that funneled into East Lake this week in order to ensure the fairest kind of competition.
Finally, a practical use for science.
McIlroy on Sunday revealed one great flaw. Like whenever he’s in position to win at the start of the final round, they just might need to introduce a whole other set of handicaps just to keep this thing close to the end. Maybe make him carry his own bag the last 18 holes. Or putt with Bobby Jones’ Calamity Jane down the stretch. Or make him spot the field two or three more strokes, just to keep the maintain public’s interest.
Honestly, though, there was something just so right about the way McIlroy went about this victory.
He said he challenged himself to step up and do what he didn’t do when playing with Woods in the last group here a year ago (he shot a dispiriting 74) and what he didn’t do when playing with Koepka in the final group on Sunday last month in Memphis (shooting 71 and fading). “I really wanted to go out there and play well and really take it to (Koepka), and I did that for the most part,” McIlory said.
He kept a running score in his head as to where he stood against the field. Forget the staggered scoring. McIlroy wanted to win this one the old-fashioned way. “That was my goal at the start of the week — to shoot the lowest score of the week. If that happened to work out the right way, then so be it. I never strayed from that thought process,” he said.
And then to be able to cap it all off by retracing the steps he made a year ago in Woods’ long shadow, only this time enjoying every step. For, while not showing it, McIlroy may have been one of the very few unhappy witnesses to Woods’ great comeback tournament victory, even if it was his first in five years.
“It was pretty cool,” McIlroy said. “I turned to (caddie Harry Diamond) when we were walking down the hill on 18 after I’d hit my second shot and I said, well, this walk is a little more pleasant than last year – not running away from a stampede.”
McIlroy may not be the same kind of carrier of mad gallery disease as Woods. But he’ll do in a pinch.
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