Rory McIlroy was the last man on the range on Saturday night. He said he went there to correct a timing issue.
“Just getting a little quick in the transition,” he explained to Sky Sports before he teed off yesterday. McIlroy hit only four fairways on Saturday, but his timing was perfect in the final round and he was the last man standing at The Players Championship on St Patrick’s Day, no less, ending a 12-month victory drought.
McIlroy bludgeoned The Players Course at TPC Sawgrass with his power, belting a 347-yard drive at the par-5 16th to set up the winning birdie and a one-stroke victory over Jim Furyk for his 15th career PGA Tour title.
After a career-best streak of five consecutive top-six finishes, McIlroy put to rest all the talk that he couldn’t finish on Sunday.
“It was just all those experiences I had starting the year,” said McIlroy of his past failures. “I felt better each time. It was my turn this week.”
It was a wild final round with as many as eight different golfers playing hot potato with the lead. Early in the round American Ollie Schniederjans shared the lead at 13 under with Mexico’s Abraham Ancer and England’s Tommy Fleetwood. But they all fell by the wayside.
The top contenders heading into the final round would have paid top dollar for the 3-under 69 posted by Tiger Woods, who finished at 6-under 282 and predicted it would be a struggle to keep going low as cool temperatures in the high 50s [fahrenheit] and a fickle wind from the north wreaked havoc.
“This is probably the most stressful golf course you ever play when there’s wind out here,” Woods said. “It’s just, the wind swirls and you have fairways that are tough to hit and then you have the greens that are tough to hit and put it in the right sections, and if you don’t, you’re going to be standing on your head hitting some shots.”
Overnight 54-hole leader Jon Rahm of Spain needed to check his decision-making after shaking off his caddie’s advice to lay up at the par 5 11th green and splashed into the water. His round then came unravelled as he stumbled to a 76.
McIlroy showed great resolve on a day when he could have squandered another opportunity. McIlroy tugged his approach from 128 yards into the water at the fourth hole, made double bogey and dropped back to 12 under. He traded a birdie at No. 6 and a bogey at No. 7 before making a birdie at the par 5 ninth to go out in 1-over par 37.
“I liked that it was playing tough,” McIlroy said. “I knew there were still chances coming up. Every time I looked at the leaderboard I was pleasantly surprised that I hadn’t fallen that far behind.”
McIlroy, playing out of the second-to-last-group, overpowered the par 5s — in addition to Nos. 9, he reached both Nos. 11 and 16 in two shots and 2-putted for easy birdies. McIlroy led the field in Strokes Gained: tee-to-green and ranked second in Strokes Gained: off the tee. His putter was just good enough. He hadn’t made a putt longer than 6 feet, 3 inches in his past 22 holes until he canned an 11-footer at No. 12 to grab the lead.
But when he coughed up the lead at the 14th, missing a 5-footer for par, he dropped into a five-way tied for the lead.
England’s Eddie Pepperell birdied five of the first eight holes on the back nine en route to a final-round 66 and the clubhouse lead at 14-under 274. He one-putted his final eight holes, including pouring in a winding 50-foot uphill putt for birdie at 17.
One hole later, Jhonattan Vegas did him one better, pouring in a 70-foot bomb for birdie at 17 to tie Pepperell, the longest putt ever holed at the island green.
“Absolutely mind blowing, simple as that,” Vegas said. But he missed a 6-foot birdie putt at 18 and settled for 66. It wouldn’t be enough for Pepperell and Vegas, who were pipped by Furyk at 18. He stiffed his approach from 172 yards to 3 feet and made the putt to post 15-under 273.
McIlroy closed with two air-tight pars and the crown jewel of the PGA Tour belonged to the man from the Emerald Isle.