For a moment Sunday, it felt normal again.
Rory McIlroy stood on the 18th green at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, as throngs of fans packed outside the ropes showered him with a chorus of “Rory! Rory! Rory!” In more than a year without that level of buzz during a global pandemic, McIlroy consistently remarked on how much he missed it.
But there it was again on Sunday – a sense of normalcy coinciding with McIlroy’s long-awaited return to the winner’s circle.
McIlroy made his only bogey of the day Sunday when he absolutely, positively needed it on the last hole, overcoming a penalty stroke to secure a one-stroke victory in the Wells Fargo Championship – his third in the event and 19th on the PGA Tour.
“I think when you haven't been in contention for a while, it never feels normal,” McIlroy said. “I certainly felt it there on the back nine. … I'm certainly glad that the crowds were back and I'm glad that I was able to get the job done in an atmosphere like that today. And I'm excited going forward now that we get to play in front of crowds like that. It was just an awesome experience to feel that again over the weekend.”
It didn’t come easy. On the notoriously brutal 18th hole at Quail Hollow, McIlroy pulled his drive into the hazard that runs the length of the left side of the hole. As he considered trying to hack with his lob wedge back toward the fairway from an awkward lie in thick grass, his caddie Harry Diamond intervened.
“Let’s take a step back and think about this,” Diamond said. “Where’s your best place you’re hitting your third from?”
McIlroy reconsidered and elected to take a drop instead, then muscled a 7-iron safely onto the green where he two-putted from 43 feet for the win.
“I would have loved to have went bogey-free today and won by two instead of one, but it's tough to get over the line, especially if you haven't done it in a while,” he said. “I made it hard for myself, but hit a great third shot into the 18th there and was able to two-putt and get the job done.”
On the eve of the tournament, McIlroy wasn’t even sure he could get the job started. Finishing up a solid range session on Wednesday afternoon, he flushed a 3-iron and then turned to his caddie when his now 32-year-old neck simply locked up. Had his first-round tee time been the next morning instead of afternoon, he would have withdrawn.
“I couldn't make a backswing,” he said. “I couldn’t move it. It was really, really strange.” He loosened it up enough to play Thursday afternoon and fire a 1-over 72. A Friday 66, however, lifted him back into the mix and rekindled his comfort level at Quail Hollow, the only course he’s collected three victories.
Officially it had been 554 days – 18 months plus a week – since McIlroy last lifted a trophy at the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions in China. But the last two months felt more like an eternity separated McIlroy from victory. Since Bay Hill in March when he pleaded for a spark after a Sunday fizzle, to the Players where he missed the cut and lamented chasing Bryson DeChambeau’s power, to the WGC Match Play where he added a new voice in his head and exited early, to the Masters where he left Friday without saying a word … it’s been one long spiral for a man who was No. 1 in the world only a year before.
“When you're playing bad, you feel so far away, and when you're playing good, you always think to yourself, ‘how did I feel like I was so far away?’” he said. “When you play the way I played sort of through that stretch in March and into April … you're going to feel like you're not as close as you probably are.”
McIlroy took a week off after Augusta to clear his head of all the negativity that had seeped in and reset, then he got back to work with Pete Cowan on his swing, Brad Faxon on his putting stroke and Bob Rotella on his psychology. Truth be told, McIlroy didn’t expect much after a month away from hitting anything under pressure, but that and a course he feels at home on proved to be the perfect tonic.
“There's been a lot of hard work,” he said. “I've put my head down, I haven't really looked too much in either direction, I've just tried to do what I need to do. You know, for a couple of months there, all that hard work seemed like it was not really getting anywhere, wasn't providing me with much.
“It's such a funny week thinking that …my game was pretty good coming in here and then have my neck completely lock up on me on the range on Wednesday afternoon, not even thinking I was going to play on Thursday, and then I'm sitting here on Sunday night with a trophy.”
McIlroy’s second straight 68 on the weekend, on the third consecutive day of windy conditions that brought out the fangs in Quail Hollow, was hard fought. Playing in the final pairing with Keith Mitchell, he fell three behind after the first hole but battled the conditions and his own nerves all day to build the two-shot cushion he needed heading to the last hole.
“Shows you how awesome he is as a player because he didn't have his best today and he still won and that's why he's got majors and a bunch of wins,” said Mitchell, who finished tied third with Viktor Hovland behind Abraham Ancer. “It's impressive watching that because he had to fight there today, too. The wind was gusting like crazy.”
Said McIlroy: “That's sort of been my mantra is try to just hit good golf shots until I run out of holes and that's basically what I tried to do the entire day, just take good shot after good shot until you get to the end.
“I'm more excited about this because this is the first real test that I've had since working with Pete and sort of doing some different stuff, and for it to pretty much hold together all afternoon, first time of asking, I'm excited about that.” He got to celebrate the occasion on his wife, Erica’s, first Mother’s Day with their daughter Poppy on hand as well.
“Really, really cool,” McIlroy said. “It was hard for me not to think of that coming down the last few holes and how cool that would be to see them at the back of the 18th green, but I had more pressing issues at the time, so it was pretty easy to get it out of my head.”
The victory not only lifted McIlroy from 15th to seventh in the Official World Golf Rankings, it provided a crucial jolt of confidence two weeks before he returns to the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island for the PGA Championship, where he won by a record eight strokes in 2012 to claim his second of four majors.
“it's certainly great timing; this is obviously a huge confidence boost going in there knowing that my game is closer than it has been,” he said. “I mean, I'll be able to poke holes in everything that I did today, it's certainly far from perfect, but this one is validation that I'm on the right track.
“Obviously, I wasn't expecting to come and win first week straight out again. It's satisfying to see the work is paying off, but it's just the start. There's so much more I want to achieve and so much more I want to do in the game.”