PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The journalistic layup following Rory McIlroy’s victory on Sunday at The Players Championship would count the Ulterman’s triumph to the luck of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
But luck had nothing to do with this.
Sunday was a test of zero-sum math at the revamped March Players, a give for every take. But McIlroy proved what he’s been preaching for months with the type of gritty performance that transcends the foolishness of instant analysis.
He’d been rather clear on this following near-misses in each of his first five starts of 2019. Even as the noise around him grew – he wasn’t focused enough; he was too content with solid, if not spectacular performances; he wasn’t hungry – the 29-year-old remained resolute.
For McIlroy it was his play, not his position on the leaderboard, that was his only guide. Even after his runner-up showing to Dustin Johnson earlier this month at the WGC-Mexico Championship, he never wavered from the path: Do the dozens of little things right, from practice to preparation, and the results would follow.
Even in the microcosm of Sunday’s blustery final round, his resolve was every bit as unshakable as that powerful swing. It was there on the fourth hole when he pulled his approach shot a fraction too much and found a water hazard on his way to a double-bogey 6 to drop a stroke behind Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood.
“I needed to show a lot of character out there, double bogeyed 4, hit it in the water, and I think all the experiences I've had over the last few weeks in terms of trying to win and not getting over the line definitely helped me today,” McIlroy said.
What followed was one of the most volatile days in recent championship history, be it a major or otherwise.
Officials were clear that The Players move from May to March was the byproduct of timing. To finish the PGA Tour season before the start of football, which was the ultimate goal, The Players and the PGA Championship had to move. Consider Sunday’s free-for-all just a happy bonus.
Over the course of the final round, eight different players held at least a share of the lead, from 24-year-old Rahm to 48-year-old Jim Furyk. From first-time Players participant Eddie Pepperell to eight-time starter Jhonattan Vegas, the leaderboard was a dizzying game of musical chairs.
Added to that drama, or perhaps because of it, the cold, northern winds finally arrived for the final round. For weeks players had talked about what to expect in March, bogeyman-type tales to scare the kids. Just this week, Tiger Woods recounted a story of hitting 6-iron into the iconic 17th hole one year before the event transitioned to the warmer days of May.
How would you even hit that green with a 6-iron?
“This is probably the most stressful golf course you ever play when there's wind out here,” said Woods, who endured the most forgettable of weeks on his way to a tie for 30th place. “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.”
McIlroy certainly had his share of adventures at TPC Sawgrass but as he approached the 16th green, where a 20-footer for eagle awaited, he stole a glance at the American flag high atop the TV tower behind No. 17. It’s a tradition, like pimento cheese at Augusta National and ridiculously silly rough at the U.S. Open, for players bound for the island green.
McIlroy two-putted for his birdie at the 16th hole and a one-shot lead over Furyk and began the walk, 124 paces in total, to No. 17. It gives players plenty of time to think about all that can go wrong on the devilish hole.
McIlroy was having none of it, focusing instead on the simplest of terms.
“All I wanted to do was step up, hit a little flighted hold 9-iron over that bunker,” he said. “My thing was it was the first good swing of three swings I needed to make to win the tournament.”
And what swings they were.
McIlroy safely found the green at the 17th for a stress-free par on a hole that’s all about stress, hit his best drive of the day on the last into the fairway, and clocked his approach to 15 feet.
As he walked down the final fairway, hands stuffed deep in his pockets to ward off the cold, McIlroy remained uncharacteristically subdued. This wasn’t the same player who fist pumped the galleries at Medinah during the 2012 Ryder Cup into a frenzy. This was a man with a singular purpose.
“Of course, I desperately wanted the win today, but it's just another day. It's just another step in the journey,” said McIlroy, who closed with a 2-under 70. “I've been preaching perspective, and I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on that perspective.”
McIlroy said he’s prided himself this year on not getting caught up in the steady drumbeat of result-oriented analysis. He’s avoided reading stories about himself and steered clear of social media, but all along he knew it was there. It had to be after so many near-misses, and yet he remained committed to the path he was on.
“It's more so everyone else trying to be impatient for you. Deep down inside he knows that he's had great finishes,” said Jason Day, who was paired with McIlroy on Sunday but faded with a closing 72. “Sometimes you can get in your own way and want it too much, but that wasn't a factor here, that wasn't him.”
No, that’s not McIlroy’s style.
Perhaps the most telling example of this was McIlroy’s moment of victory: A two-putt par to end a victory drought that stretched back a grand total of 12 months – yes, his last triumph also came on St. Patrick’s Day last year at Bay Hill.
There is all manner of reasons for McIlroy to savor this victory, his 15th on Tour. He admitted that he and the TPC Sawgrass didn’t always have the “greatest relationship” and that this milestone was far from easy given Sunday’s conditions and the fluid leaderboard.
There have been plenty of times in McIlroy’s career when he’s rolled over fields to victories that seemed effortless. This was not that. This was a grind that required as much mental toughness as it did actual talent, and given the driving display he put on Sunday, there was an abundance of talent involved.
The record books will show that his Players victory put an end to so many missed opportunities, but for McIlroy, who described himself as comfortable more so than confident, this was simply another step in the process. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Even with some noise around me, whether it is, he can't close, he can't play on Sundays, blah, blah, blah. I've just got to do my thing,” McIlroy said. “If I go and I concentrate on me, control what I can do, good golf and good attitude takes care of the rest.”
No, he didn’t need any luck on Sunday, just an unyielding belief that he was always on the right path.