Although Rory McIlroy is only 30 years old, he has been linked to big moments for a long time, practically since the first, “this kid is the real deal,” reports from golf experts began filtering out of his native Northern Ireland.
On a Sunday in August at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Ga., as the FedExCup Playoffs concluded at the 2019 TOUR Championship, there was another confluence of McIlroy and history. And despite all the achievements that have supplanted those early forecasts about a curly haired, sweet-swinging teen, this occasion stood out.
McIlroy was FedExCup Champion after winning the TOUR Championship in 2016, under a points system that decided the outcome from the Playoffs’ inception in 2007 through the 2017-18 PGA TOUR Season. This time, McIlroy, winner of THE PLAYERS Championship earlier this year and a four-time career major champion, won the FedExCup for the second time with an innovative yet easy-to-grasp new framework in place.
Instead of it being possible for there to be different winners of the TOUR Championship and FedExCup—as had happened four times, including 2018, when Tiger Woods won the tournament and Justin Rose claimed the FedExCup—only one champion could be crowned at East Lake in 2019.
That turned out to be McIlroy, who won the $15 million bonus, a record payout from the $60 FedExCup Bonus Pool. He joined Woods (2007, 2009), as the only players to win the FedExCup more than once, a year after playing alongside Woods at East Lake as Tiger broke a five-year drought with his 80th career victory.
“Really cool to put my name on this trophy for a second time,” McIlroy said. “Any time you can do something that only Tiger has done, you’re doing something right.”
The 30-man field began the final 72 holes of the season with weighted “Starting Strokes” based on their position in the FedExCup standings through the first two playoff events (THE NORTHERN TRUST, won by Patrick Reed, and BMW Championship, won by Justin Thomas).
Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup champion, won the BMW Championship with a torrid four days at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago—including a third-round 61—and arrived at East Lake ranked No. 1 in the FedExCup standings. That meant he began the TOUR Championship at 10 under, with Patrick Cantlay (8 under), Brooks Koepka (7 under), Reed (6 under) and McIlroy (5 under) as the players ranked Nos. 2 through 5 in the standings. The rest of the field was also placed “under par” according to their FedExCup position, players 26 through 30 beginning at even par.
McIlroy wasted no time asserting himself in the first round at East Lake, no surprise given his consistency throughout the 2018-19 season, a factor in his peers voting him PGA TOUR Player of the Year. He opened with a 4-under 66 and would be the only player to post four rounds in the 60s.
The third round was suspended Saturday afternoon because of thunderstorms, forcing it to be completed the following morning. That made Sunday a marathon (McIlroy played 31 holes on the final day). At end of 54 holes, factoring in their Starting Strokes, Brooks Koepka (15 under), led McIlroy and Xander Schauffele by one stroke, with Thomas and Paul Casey three back.
If there had been any uncertainty about how the revised format would work, those doubts were gone with two powerhouse players in the final group battling it out for the FedExCup.
“I think if you look at the way it all played out, you had the No. 1 and No. 2 in the regular season FedExCup standing playing in the final group this week, so I think it worked out well,” McIlroy said. “I was part of that decision to go with the staggered format. I talked about it in meetings and debated it, and it definitely simplifies it for us playing and also for the fans.”
It was only the second time Koepka and McIlroy had been paired together in a final round, Brooks having outplayed Rory a month earlier at the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, shooting 65 to his rival’s closing 71. “Once I saw I was in the final group with Brooks, it took me back to Memphis, and I felt I learned a few lessons from that day,” McIlroy said.
The tables were turned at East Lake, McIlroy shooting 66 to Koepka’s 72. “It gave me a little bit of extra,” McIlroy said of the pairing. “I wanted to right some of the wrongs that I made on Sunday at Memphis a few weeks ago, and it was a good opportunity to do it.”
McIlroy finished at 18 under par, four ahead of Schauffele. Koepka and Thomas tied for third at 13 under, and Casey took fifth at 9 under. (Without Starting Strokes, McIlroy, at 13 under, also had the lowest total.)
“Like I’ve said multiple times, he’s the most fun to watch when he’s playing well,” Koepka said. “He hits it so good, he putts it really well, and when he’s on, man, he’s tough to beat. I enjoy competing against Rory. He’s a tough competitor.”
It was McIlroy’s third win of the season and 17th in his PGA TOUR career, and he is the first to win THE PLAYERS and the FedExCup in the same season.
Rare air, for a rare golfer.
This article first appeared in the PGA TOUR December 2019-May 2020 issue, which can be read here.