- With the Masters just around the corner, Rory McIlroy’s historic finish at the Players Championship sets him up as the man to beat right now. Doubt him at your peril.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” If, by Rudyard Kipling.
Rory McIlroy refused to be discouraged.
Not after an indifferent final round when he had a chance to win the first tournament of 2019. Not after he sat front-row as Dustin Johnson crushed him by five in Mexico. Not after failing to defend his title at Bay Hill from the final pairing last week. Not after he was reminded ad nauseam that he was winless the last nine times he played in the final group. Not after a full year without a win.
He had reason for optimism—you don’t put yourself in position that often unless your game is in phenomenal shape. So instead of panicking, of pressing, McIlroy assured everyone that the wins would come. It’s like Christmas, he said earlier in the week. You know it’s coming. You just have to wait.
Turns out he didn’t have to wait very long at all.
For the second consecutive round, McIlroy overcame a nervy start on Sunday and manufactured a two-under 70. His 16 under total was good enough to win the Players Championship by a single shot over Jim Furyk, the 48-year-old losing Ryder Cup captain who nearly pulled off the unlikeliest of victories. On St. Patrick’s Day, the Northern Irishman birdied 15 and 16 then avoided disaster on TPC Sawgrass’ final two holes, where disaster lurks everywhere.
The shot that clinched the one-shot victory was indicative of a player dripping in confidence. Needing just a par to secure his first victory in 364 days, and the $2.25 million check that comes with it, McIlroy would be excused for avoiding the water on the left side of the 18th green like the plague. Instead, he hit a sweeping draw that flew directly over the flagstick, finishing left of the hole and leaving an easy two-putt.
A poetic finish to a cathartic victory. A historic one, too. McIlroy becomes the third player in PGA Tour history to reach 15 wins and four majors before turning 30. The other two? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
It’s been clear McIlroy has Jack-and-Tiger-level talent since he won the U.S. Open (by eight) as a curly-haired, pudgy 22-year-old. But his career has been stuck in neutral of late. Prior to Sunday, he had just one victory since the 2016 Tour Championship. He still hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA. The reason behind that is anyone’s guess. Some think he spent too much time in the gym and not enough time honing his wedges. Others suggest he let his mind wander to non-golf interests.
McIlroy has spoken vaguely of reaching an enhanced mental space, where he realizes that winning is amazing but winning isn’t everything. That new outlook explains how he’s stayed so calm through the frustrating Sundays. It explains why he’s answered every question about his final-round performances with candor and kindness. It explains how he kept his nerve despite being two over through seven on a course designed to make the world’s best question themselves.
“I think [this win is] a little bit of validation, knowing that what I’ve been doing has been the right thing and I’m on the right path,” McIlroy told Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis after the victory.
“Sometimes I’ve had that in the past, where I see myself as the golfer and basically the only thing that matters is what I shoot that day. That’s not me. That’s where perspective is huge.”
It’s impossible to avoid viewing McIlroy’s victory through the lens of Augusta National. The Masters begins in 25 days, and a green jacket remains the only thing between McIlroy and ultimate golfing immortality: becoming just the sixth man to win the career Grand Slam. The way McIlroy had been playing on Thursday through Saturday this year made him one of the favorites, but it’s the way he closed—and that he closed at all—that makes him the man to beat at the year’s first major.
A statistical analysis of McIlroy’s current game shows a player ready to dominate. He leads the Tour in strokes gained driving, strokes gained tee-to-green and strokes gained overall. He is, without question, the best ball striker on earth. (Just watch the guy swing a club!) His scoring average in 2019 is 68.50. And as Paul Azinger astutely noted on Sunday, he’s one of the very few players—if not the only player—who can win without his ‘A’ game.
It’s also worth re-emphasizing how young McIlroy still is. Because he’s been in the limelight for the better part of a decade, because he speaks with equanimity and maybe because there are tinges of gray in his now much-shorter hair, it’s easy to forget that he is still in his 20s. He is squarely in the prime of his physical career, and he appears to have reached a new level of inner peace. His mental prime, perhaps. This is an exciting time to be a Rory McIlroy fan. It’s a less exciting time to be someone who has to play against Rory McIlroy.
“I think I can make the next 10 years even better than the previous 10 years,” McIlroy said Sunday.
Doubt him at your peril.