NORTON, Mass. – In a town that knows a thing or two about fall playoff swoons, the second leg of the FedEx Cup post-season must have looked familiar.
For some, the Deutsche Bank Championship had 86 years of heartbreak and heroics rolled into one chamber of commerce afternoon. And that was before eventual champion Rory McIlroy and runner-up Louis Oosthuizen ever reached the turn.
The only thing missing was the ghost of the Bambino and Red Sox hurler Curt Schilling’s bloody sock.
An afternoon filled with FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup fortunes lost and found, ended with a familiar smile and McIlroy hoisting yet another trophy, his third of the season and his second in less than a month.
The Northern Irishman’s one-stroke victory over Oosthuizen solidified his place atop the World Golf Ranking and likely sent chills through U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III’s hunched shoulders, but this was not the work of art that Kiawah and last year’s U.S. Open were.
“It’s good we weren’t playing too much more. I’m not sure he had too much left in him,” McIlroy’s swing coach Michael Bannon sighed.
On Sunday Tiger Woods figured he still had a chance to catch Oosthuizen, pointing out he’d rallied in 2006 at TPC Boston from three strokes down to beat Vijay Singh. This time, however, it was McIlroy who made up the field goal deficit with a torrid three-birdies-through-four-holes start.
Through six holes Oosthuizen, who appeared unstoppable for three days, hit into two fairway bunkers, pulled his tee shot at No. 5 so far left it was last seen headed for Pawtucket and failed to reach the green in three shots at the par-5 seventh . . . with a putter in his hands for his approach.
A lead that seemed insurmountable when the South African signed his card late Sunday was gone before the turn on Monday following a double-bogey 6 at the fifth. The man they call “Shrek” was just ugly through 12 holes, but he wasn’t done.
Birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 moved Oosthuizen to within one stroke of McIlroy – who played the front nine in 4 under but posted just a single birdie on the inward loop – and he seemed poised to reclaim the lead standing in the middle of the 17th fairway with a 9-iron in his hands. But Oosthuizen misjudged the wind and failed to convert his 12 footer for par. The two traded bogeys at the 17th and the par-5 18th, the talk of the town all week following Gil Hanse’s redesign of the green, was pushed with pars.
“The 17th cost me,” said Oosthuizen, who closed with a 71 for a 19 under total. “I just misjudged the wind. . . . But I made all my putts yesterday and didn’t make any today.”
McIlroy made everything that mattered on Labor Day, including clutch par saves at Nos. 14, after finding the front bunker with his approach, and 15, where he miss-hit his tee shot barely 170 yards and scrambled for another par.
“I've learned how to handle winning big events and carrying myself forward and not dwelling on what's happened, just moving forward,” said McIlroy, who closed with consecutive 67s after opening the week with back-to-back 65s. “There's a time and a place to celebrate and to enjoy what you've done, and going into the playoffs isn't it.”
The “slump” that drew so much attention midway through his summer, and prompted him to add a start to his schedule, now seems like ancient history. McIlroy has now won two of his last three starts and finished in the top 5 in three of his last four dating to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he seemed to turn his season around.
“It all started on Wednesday at Akron (Ohio),” Bannon said. “He had done so much technical work and it was just a matter of going out and playing golf. Getting the feel for what he wanted to do and play.”
Woods also appeared to turn a corner this week. Although he wasn’t able to put pressure on McIlroy like he did earlier this year at the Honda Classic, when he closed with a 62 and finished two behind the Ulsterman, he posted four rounds in the 60s for the first time on Tour since the 2009 BMW Championship.
“My game is starting to come around. I'm pleased with the progress I made this week and really pleased with the way I rolled it,” said Woods, who closed with 66 and finished two strokes back. “I hit so many good putts all week long, so that's a positive.”
But if McIlroy’s and Woods’, and maybe even Oosthuizen’s, week could be considered victories, the likes of Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler had the slump-shouldered look of defeat.
Mahan finished tied for 39th, extending his streak of no top-10 finishes to six events, while Fowler tied for 74th and failed to break par for the sixth consecutive round. Both will spend Monday night waiting to hear from Love who will select his four captain’s picks on Tuesday in New York City.
Neither sounded as if they expected good news.
“I want to make the team, it’s not like you can just forget about it,” said Mahan, frustrated with his game of late and looking for answers. “I want to make the team more than anything else, it’s a pride factor.”
But what he and the other Ryder Cup hopefuls are really looking for now is a call from a 912 area code, the coastal Georgia enclave where Love lives.
Fowler got the call in 2010 but following three consecutive over-par cards at TPC Boston, including a sloppy 76 to finish his week, Monday promised to be a long night. At least he will have company.
Fowler planned to fly to Indiana for this week’s BMW Championship with Mahan and Bo Van Pelt, considered by some a player with an outside chance of landing a pick.
At the other end of the emotional scale were Brandt Snedeker (sixth place) and Dustin Johnson (T-4), whose Ryder Cup chances suddenly seemed emboldened by a solid week at TPC Boston.
It was all part of a busy week and although this is not the kind of playoff push New Englanders are accustomed to it did feel strangely familiar.
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