The road didn’t exactly rise up to meet Rory McIlroy on St. Patrick’s Day. The wind was not always at his back. Nor did the sun shine warm upon his face on a gray, chilled final round at the Players Championship.
No matter that none of the elements of a right proper toast for this day were in play for McIlroy Sunday. A man closes the deal like McIlroy did here, he doesn’t’ need luck, Irish or otherwise.
With a steady hand and the resilience to overcome a faltering front nine, McIlroy won the Players by one skinny stroke over a couple guys who have regrets older than he is. His 16 under for the tournament was just enough to overcome the duo of 48-year-old Jim Furyk and his 70-year-old caddie “Fluff” Cowen.
By the time McIlroy made the turn Sunday, having shot a very un-championship 1 over on the front, including a watery double bogey on No. 4 that was just plain reckless, this tournament had the look of an all-comers track meet. Step right up — no matter your age, your nationality, your lack of resume — and take a run at the lead.
But quality will out.
Third-round leader Jon Rahm, who turns golf writers into volcanologists awaiting the next eruption, tried to hold it together. He really did. Ah, but then he overruled his caddie’s advice to layup from the fairway bunker on the par 5 11th, going for the green and instead finding the water that’s everywhere here. There was the stomp. There was the curse. There was the slight sulfuric odor of impending doom. Rahm finished with a 4 over 76, and fell from top of the leaderboard to a tie for 12th.
Tommy Fleetwood had been in control of the Players much of the week but faded with his first over-par round of the tournament (73) when he could least afford it.
Alpharetta’s Ollie Schniederjans momentarily enjoyed a share of the lead when his third birdie over his first six holes pushed him to 12 under par. But reality fell on him like an anvil. A bogey on No. 8, a double bogey on the par 4 10th and then the ever-fatal flaw of hitting it into the lake on the par 3 17th removed him from the contending mob. He finished 10 under for the week and tied for 16th.
It was up to other great moments in front of McIlroy to eventually test him.
There was Jhonattan Vegas making the longest-ever Players Championship putt on the island green of No. 17 — 70 feet — on his way to posting a 66 and a 14 under for the tournament.
And one Eddie Pepperell jumped out from the palmetto bushes and shot 66 as well, to join Vegas at 14 under.
But no challenge was more engaging than the one posted by Furyk. Known lately as the captain of a woeful U.S. Ryder Cup team, his game corroded by age and injury and nearly four years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, Furyk just wouldn’t go away. He may be out-gunned on the tee and out-younged on the green, but there he was hitting it to three feet on No. 18, the most difficult hole of them all Sunday, making one of only nine birdies there all day. That gave Furyk the lead at 15 under with McIlroy yet to play the difficult closing four holes.
OK, Furyk, who lives nearby, didn’t get a trophy at the end, but in many important ways was a winner Sunday. That was obvious in the emotional embrace he and his caddie shared at round’s end.
“It’s fun to be in front of the home crowd. I’ve got my family here, a lot of friends. I haven’t been healthy in a lot of years. I haven’t put myself in the heat with really a good opportunity to win a golf tournament in a while, and I missed it. I missed the nerves, I missed the excitement, the cheers, and I think the emotion you saw on 18 was just I was proud of the way I played.”
So, McIlroy has lost the knack of front-running to the finish, huh? A four-time major winner, the sixth-ranked golfer in the world, has been wearing the slander of not being able to finish for a little while now. There’s a stat floating around out there that he hasn’t won a tournament the last nine times he’s been in the final pairing on Sunday. That he won from the next-to-last pairing this day still should be enough to make that charge go away.
By the end, he found himself almost reveling in the difficulties of a Sunday at TPC Sawgrass. “I almost liked today because it was tough,” he said. “I knew that guys weren’t going to get away from us, especially when I made double (bogey) on 4. I just stayed as patient as I possibly could, and any time I looked at the leaderboard, I was pleasantly surprised that I hadn't fallen two, three shots behind. That gave me a little bit of encouragement to keep going. And I played a great back nine.”
He bounced back from a potentially devastating bogey on No. 14 with a 13-foot birdie make on the par 4 15th. He birdied the par 5 16th as well. And then McIlroy walked to that scary little tee shot on No. 17 with a one-shot lead over Furyk. There was a confident bounce in his walk. And on cue he hit it safely to the middle of the green.
A drive bisecting the fairway at 18, and an approach that was closer to the water — and also closer to the pin — than it needed to be was a sturdy closing statement.
McIlroy has no finishes worse than sixth in six starts in 2019. That wind is at his back going into the Masters, the one major that has eluded him.
And Masters talk began almost immediately following his first victory at this sizable event. McIlroy tried to keep it all in a healthy perspective.
“I feel like I've managed the first six tournaments of the year very well. Even with some noise around me, whether it is, he can't close, he can't play on Sundays, blah, blah, blah,” McIlroy said.
“I've just got to do my thing, and if I go and I concentrate on me, control what I can do, good golf and good attitude takes care of the rest. And if I go to Augusta with a similar golf game to what I have now and the attitude I've shown over the first few weeks of the year, I think I'll have a great chance.”
So, raise a toast to the man. Slainte.
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