The Northern Irishman won the fifth major, the Players Championship, at Sawgrass on St Patricks Day, with Jim Furyk second and Eddie Pepperell tied for third
This is not the most high-profile victory of Rory McIlroys career but it is without doubt among the most significant. That McIlroy claimed the Players Championship the hard way somehow added an element of prestige.
A series of near misses had led to external questions regarding McIlroys ability or hunger, even before he turns 30. The response, pressed home with grit and composure, arrived at the PGA Tours marquee event. McIlroys golfing journey, which has already delivered so much, has another pivotal moment as he makes final preparations for a fresh tilt at a grand slam of majors. If not the case already, Augusta National just got serious.
I think I can make the next 10 years even better than the previous 10 years, said McIlroy. Thats what my motivation is. This sounded a truly competitive warning.
On a gripping Sunday at Sawgrass McIlroy saw off the astonishing challenge of the 48-year-old Jim Furyk by one. Neither Jon Rahm nor Tommy Fleetwood could keep pace. The champions 16 under par total was reached by a final round of 70; McIlroy birdied two of the closing four holes after a bogey at the 14th threatened to trigger another tale of woe. This time there was a happy ending. McIlroys drive and approach to the treacherous 18th, where any error would have loosened his grip on the trophy, looked like a dictionary definition of fortitude.
I stayed patient, McIlroy added. My previous experiences this year helped me to play really well down the stretch. All those earlier chances helped me today. On the 18th tee I just said to myself, One good swing. This is very special.
Furyk ensured 15 under was at least the play-off requirement with a stroke of genius at the last. From 170 yards he sent a seven-iron to 3ft from the cup. The scene as he hugged his 71-year-old caddie, Fluff Cowan, as he tapped in for a birdie was wonderfully endearing. Before this Cowan probably thought he had seen it all. Hes pretty amazing, said Furyk of his bag man afterwards. He doesnt change much out there. I probably dont look like I change but I can tell inside what Im feeling. I can feel my heartbeat. I know when Im jacked up and excited.
He loves what he does for a living, he likes coming to work, everyone likes him and he never changes, whether Im shooting 80 or shooting 65.
Furyk was to be denied revenge on one of the players who oversaw his defeat when the US Ryder Cup captain last year but this remained an outstanding effort.
In adding to an utterly compelling storyline, others took turns to emerge from the pack and swing at the leaders. Eddie Pepperell holed out from 49ft at the 17th to reach 14 under par. In the very next group Jhonattan Vegas converted from the longest distance ever recorded on the same hole; 69ft. Vegas, too, was now minus 14. He and Pepperell were to finish on that number. Pepperell had given serious consideration to withdrawing from a tournament in which he was to finish tied third due to concerns about the state of his game.
In many ways its ridiculous, Pepperell admitted. Having said that, its eerily similar to what happened last year on a number of occasions. It feels unfortunate that Ive got to go through those moments of frustration but out the other side does come seemingly good stuff. Clearly all I did there was a mature thing to do. I maybe wouldnt have done that in the past. I wouldnt have even bothered. I went home, went to sleep, come back, restarted and had a really productive Tuesday evening. Maybe that was the difference.
Fleetwoods 73 meant he tied fifth with Brandt Snedeker and Dustin Johnson at 13 under. Rahm, who had started day four with a one-stroke lead, stumbled to a 76 and share of 12th.
Tiger Woodss 69 left him at six under and amongt a quintet at 30th. The 14-times major winner insisted his Masters preparations are right on track. McIlroy was to continue the theme and more. He is back.
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