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ATLANTA – For months on end, amid endless controversy and sniping and a good bit of animosity, the major focal point in golf centered around cold, hard cash.

Sure, Tiger Woods returned improbably at the Masters, won perhaps more improbably by Scottie Scheffler, capping a torrid stretch.

Justin Thomas overcame a big final-round deficit to win the PGA Championship in a playoff and Matt Fitzpatrick hit one of the all-time fairway bunker shots to seal the U.S. Open.

Cam Smith shot a final-round 64 to hoist the Claret Jug and win the British Open at St. Andrews.

Those stories can never be beat.

But money has triumphed over all this year, with LIV Golf dominating tournament play, big-name players defecting from the PGA Tour to sign lucrative guaranteed contracts that go beyond anyone’s dreams—with the right to then play for huge purses, all expenses paid.

It’s been a tumultuous time for the game, no matter what you think of LIV Golf, which exists because of, well, the money. Such an entity never takes hold if there were not some level of discontent among those grinding on the PGA Tour, a fact made clear months ago by Phil Mickelson, who became one of the biggest names to take the leap.

For Rory McIlroy, it was never seemingly about the riches. Sure, he wants to be paid just like the next guy, but McIlroy has already made a fortune in the game, and he’s made it a point to take the lead and stand up for the PGA Tour.

His victory Sunday at the Tour Championship—which meant a third FedEx Cup title and an end to the 2021-22 season—was immensely satisfying for reasons that go beyond the $18 million bonus he received.

“Everyone on Tour has had to deal with a lot,’’ McIlroy said. “Even the guys that have went to LIV have had to deal with a lot. It's just been a very tumultuous sort of era in our game.

“I said it in the prize ceremony, this is the best place in the world to play golf. It's the most competitive. It's got the best players. It's got the deepest fields. I don't know why you'd want to play anywhere else.’’

There’s been no better advocate for the PGA Tour during these difficult times. Woods took a leadership role a few weeks ago in calling for and attending a players-only meeting in Delaware. McIlroy was part of that, too, while also trying to maintain his own game.

On the eve of the Tour Championship, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced significant changes that will be implemented next year. Among them—a lot more money. See, it’s everywhere. And the PGA Tour has had to dig deep, coming up with nearly $200 million or so to enhance the lives of many who are already wealthy beyond belief.

And there was McIlroy to back up Monahan, spending more than 30 minutes with the media, again being out front and taking the questions and singing the praises of an entity that has helped him become one of the biggest stars in the game.

Then he opened the tournament on Thursday with a triple bogey, followed by a bogey. Due to the staggered strokes format used at the Tour Championship, McIlroy—who was starting at -4, six strokes back—found himself 10 behind Scheffler, who had yet to even tee off.

Two birdies to end his third round Sunday morning helped get him in the final group with Scheffler—but still six behind. And yet, after a great push to the end of the third round for Scheffler, he was missing something in the final round. He bogeyed three of the first six holes, and it was game on.

Over the course of the remaining 12 holes, it was certainly fair to wonder if dollar signs ever crept into their minds. The numbers numb us all these days, but $18 million to the winner, $6.5 million to second—it’s quite a difference.

“Playing professional golf for a living is such a gift,’’ Scheffler said. “For me, I don't play golf for money. I play to win tournaments and I play to have fun and do my best and see where the game can take me.

“Today the money definitely didn't creep into my mind. I wanted to win the season-long title. I've had a really great year and I wanted to finish it off with a win here, and unfortunately I wasn't able to do that. But at the end of the day it's such a gift to be out here playing golf for money, and I can't—I'm just so thankful to be out here.’’

Scheffler made more than $14 million in official PGA Tour prize money and another $5.75 million for sharing second place with Sungjae Im. As it turned out, he would have been tied for 13th in the field if you simply went by raw 72-hole scores.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has made more than $46 million in official prize money on the PGA Tour and another $43 million in first-place FedEx bonus money as well. Throw in his European Tour success and it’s easy why there’s no reason to get nervous over a payday.

“Probably of everyone in the field, I care the least about the money,’’ he said.

He admitted that his loss at the Open last month—where he hit all 18 greens in regulation in the final round and still came up two shots short of Smith—stung. He took two weeks in London to decompress, said jumping back into the business of the Tour helped take his mind off the defeat, and that knowing he was playing well helped him.

“This softens St. Andrews a bit, but not completely,’’ he said. “But I went up against the best player in the world today and took him down.’’

Since its inception, the FedEx Cup has always been about the money in some form. It wasn’t a major championship, nor could it ever compare. The big bonus pool helped distinguish it from the rest, and the difference paid to the winner compared to those behind seemed enough to make you nervous.

It was impossible to escape that Sunday, and we’re in for more money talk in the coming weeks as LIV Golf resumes.

But McIlroy, somehow, ended the PGA Tour season without that being the focus.