GolfChannel.com is counting down the top storylines of 2019. Here's a look at the list, from those that just missed the cut to those that dominated the year:
- Honorable mentions
- Nos. 6-10
- No. 5: Rules neither simple nor satisfactory
- No. 4: Woods wins 82nd PGA Tour title
- No. T-2: Koepka speaks mind, cements status as No. 1
And tied with Koepka for second on our list is, appropriately enough, Rory McIlroy's Player-of-the-Year season that included everything but a major title.
WHY IT MATTERED
In a year filled with dizzying heights that included an eight-figure payday, the one shot that sticks out most from Rory McIlroy’s 2019 campaign is the one he’d most like to have back.
Such is the dichotomy of a tremendous and memorable season for the Ulsterman, one where he won four times and captured the FedExCup but also failed to feature prominently in any of the four majors and made an early exit from the most anticipated start of his career.
McIlroy entered the new year with plenty to prove, ranked eighth in the world and stuck in a logjam of elite players who could each break out in any given week, but didn’t appear poised to take the game by storm. He delivered early and often, cobbling together a remarkably consistent year that featured two more victories than missed cuts and one in which a top-10 result began to feel commonplace. When he was on, like a final-round 61 to blitz the field at the RBC Canadian Open, it felt like a 2014 flashback.
That consistency was rewarded by his peers, as McIlroy was named PGA Tour Player of the Year over Brooks Koepka despite Koepka’s dominating performance in the majors. McIlroy’s credentials were complicated by the fact that his few missteps came when the spotlight shined the brightest, none more so than The Open’s return to Royal Portrush where McIlroy hit his opening tee shot out of bounds and spent the next 35 holes trying unsuccessfully to dig out of the hole he had created for himself with an opening quad.
Never one to shy away from a microphone, McIlroy has openly set his sights on catching and surpassing Koepka as the calendar flips to 2020. He’s now back to No. 2 in the world rankings, seemingly in a better position to play foil to golf’s alpha male than any of the other recent contenders.
But he still has to shake the fact that he’s now made five full trips around the sun since he last hoisted a major trophy – and that came six months before Koepka won on Tour for the first time.
It will likely take a Herculean effort to stand toe-to-toe with the brash incumbent, but this year McIlroy proved that he is every bit up for the challenge and eager to make his 30s as productive as his 20s. If he solves the major riddle, he just might knock Koepka off his longstanding perch.
HOW IT PLAYED OUT
McIlroy got going from his very first start of the year, tying for fourth in his debut appearance at Kapalua. That sparked a run of strong finishes that didn’t feature a win, a trend that he ended in resounding fashion by capturing The Players. It was his sixth straight top-6 finish to start the year, and it set the table for another run at the final leg of the career Grand Slam at the Masters.
“I think this is the best start to a year I’ve probably made,” McIlroy said in March. “I think I’m on a really good path, and I just want to keep going.”
Unfortunately for McIlroy, the hype fizzled out at Augusta National as he finished T-21 while Tiger Woods took the glory. It snapped a run of five straight top-10s at the Masters for McIlroy, who was largely undone by an opening 73 that featured six bogeys.
A T-8 finish at the PGA Championship was somewhat deceptive since he started the final round 14 shots off the lead, but McIlroy burst back to the forefront with his red-hot close north of the border. Rounds of 64-61 over the weekend turned a tight Canadian Open leaderboard into a rout, and it once again ratcheted up the anticipation for the following week’s U.S. Open. He played his way into the mix at Pebble Beach, starting the final round alone in sixth, but faded to a T-9 finish.
Then came Portrush, where all eyes were on the native son returning to the course where he once dazzled as a youth. But it all went wrong for McIlroy as soon as he was introduced on the first tee, as his opening-round 79 felt even more out of place given his consistent play in the weeks and months prior. He fought valiantly the following day, shooting a 65 only to narrowly miss the weekend, and the subsequent tears he shed demonstrated the level of disappointment he felt in front of the Northern Irish fans.
“I’d been waiting on this moment for six or seven years or whatever it was, and all of a sudden it’s here and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, this is real. This isn’t a dream anymore. This has turned into reality,’” he said. “Definitely the most ‘deer in the headlights’ I’ve ever been on a golf course.”
McIlroy appeared poised to cede Player of the Year honors to Koepka until the season’s final event, where he distanced himself from the 30-man field by any metric or format. With the Tour implementing a new staggered leaderboard to start the Tour Championship, McIlroy actually started the week five shots off the lead but bent East Lake to his will with four straight rounds of 68 or better to cruise to victory.
One year after he faltered in a final-round pairing in Atlanta with Tiger Woods, McIlroy beat Koepka in the same situation and joined Woods as the only two-time FedExCup champs, banking a lucrative $15 million payday for his troubles.
Weeks later he surprised many by edging Koepka in the Player of the Year vote among his peers, but he may have secured status as 2019’s top individual with his victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China while Koepka was at home rehabbing a sore knee. It made him the only four-time winner on Tour in the calendar year and set the stage for a potential battle for supremacy with Koepka in the not-too-distant future.
“The last 18 months, I’ve been very settled. I’ve been comfortable with everything, my game, my equipment, my body’s been healthy,” McIlroy said. “I feel like this year compares to 2014, 2015, but I don’t see any reason why I can’t go ahead and have an even better year next year.”