Four over par after just three holes of his opening round, the Holywood star played the remaining 69 holes on 19 under, closing with a six under 65 to claw back a six-shot deficit on overnight leader Paul Casey.
With his putting confidence restored thanks to a move to new coach Phil Kenyon just a fortnight ago, the 27-year old from Co Down won the 20th pro title of his career by two strokes from Casey on 15 under par, leapfrogging Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson to third in the world rankings and jumping 34 places to fourth in the FedExCup standings with two playoff events to go.
Delighted with his first win in the US since last year’s Wells Fargo Championship, his second this season after the Irish Open, McIlroy said: “From four over after three holes, there were a lot of things going through my mind and one of them was not winning this tournament. Sixty-nine holes later and 19 under par after those three holes, I have played some great golf and holed some great putts. I am really proud of how I hung on that first day, got some momentum on Saturday and then just went with it. One of the things missing from my CV is the FedExCup. I’ve won Race to Dubais and Orders of Merit and been the leading money winner on the PGA Tour but I have never lifted the FedEx Cup, so the next two tournaments are huge for me.
“Hopefully I can ride this momentum to the Tour Championship and once I do well there and maybe win the FedEx Cup I can help Team Europe win a fourth Ryder Cup in a row.”
As for his putting — he was seventh in that department for the week — he said: “I didn’t look like my putting was going to come (back) that quickly if you had seen me last week at Bethpage. But I have worked hard on it and spent a lot of time on the putting green over the last few weeks and I have started to reap the rewards.
“It’s still a work in progress but obviously a week like this can only do my confidence the world of good and be really encouraging for the future .”
McIlroy began the day six shots behind Casey in a share of seventh place but it quickly became clear that he was in the mood for a charge.
After missing a 12 footer for birdie at the first stormed to the turn in 31 to grab a share of the lead with overnight leader Casey on 14 under par.
Two putts at the par-five second were all he needed to open his birdie account and when he got up and down from greenside sand for a birdie three at the 353 yard fourth, Casey’s lead was down the three. The English star had started par-bogey and when he also at the with Casey dropping shots at the par-five second and when he then three-putted the fifth from nearly 70 feet for another bogey, McIlroy could sense blood in the water.
The Co Down man’s new putting method has paid huge dividends and he was superb in tough conditions yesterday.
Another up and down from sand yielded a birdie at the par-five seventh to close the gap to one and he then rolled in an 18 footer for a two at the eighth to tie for the lead.
Casey stopped the rot and briefly regain the solo lead with a birdie at seventh. But McIlroy replied with a 10 footer for birdie at the ninth to go five under for the day. While he drove into a divot a the 12th — the hole that cost him a triple bogey as his third hole in the first round and a double bogey on Sunday — he fired his approach to 22 feet and rolled in the putt to go ahead.
Casey bogeyed the 11th, birdied the 13th but then three putted the 14th to give McIlroy a two shot cushion. And while he bogeyed the 17th, bunkering his approach from the left rough, he brilliantly got up and down from sand for a birdie four at the last for his 65 as Casey failed to birdie the 17th and needing an eagle three, he three-putted the 18th from 60 feet for par and a two over 73 that left him alone in second place on 13 under.
“The wind was getting up but Paul is a great player and I thought if he could get back to even par for the day, I had 16 or 17 under in my mind,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t end up having to go that low but I played some solid golf on the back nine and the up and down on 18 was crucial.”