For those gathered for walks around this golf stadium called TPC Sawgrass, there was a mood they had not experienced for a while with THE PLAYERS Championship 2019. Quick and confident, buoyant and vibrant.
Perhaps owed to the move to March and a PLAYERS Stadium Course that had been over-seeded? Possibly that, but more likely it was Rory McIlroy’s return to circa 2012-2014 form, the days of the “good” Rory,” the “jaunty” Rory, the “spirited” Rory, before some head-hanging and cut-missing days brought a rare spell of inconsistency.
“You can tell that his demeanor, it’s a lot different compared to last year,” noted McIlroy’s fourth-round playing competitor, Jason Day.
Astute observation, because McIlroy confirmed that he is indeed in a different place. “I’m just more comfortable,” he said after birdies at the par-4 15th and par-5 16th got him home in 70—272 to win by one over fast-closing Jim Furyk. “I’m very comfortable with where everything is.”
Then again, the penthouse, or at least a floor below it, would tend to be a cozy place to be and that’s pretty much where McIlroy has been situated since the PGA TOUR season turned the corner into 2019 and he began to post red numbers like Steph Curry tossing down threes. McIlroy rode into THE PLAYERS having finished within the top six in each of his five starts, breaking par in 17 of 20 rounds.
Credit perspective on the verge of his 30th birthday (May 4).
“I’m working on really one thing in my golf swing,” he said, which is in addition to a reduced practice regimen. “I feel like I’ve figured out a way to manage my time better and what needs to be addressed and what doesn’t. So, yeah, I’m comfortable.”
While he said he was comfortable, the media seemingly wasn’t with McIlroy’s lack of finishing touch. When he shot 72 and dropped to T-6 while in the final pairing of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard the week before THE PLAYERS, just about everyone noted that McIlroy was now 0-for-his-last-9 tries in the final pairing.
“I’ve been disciplined this year in not reading a lot of stuff about myself,” McIlroy said. “So, that helped.”
A bigger asset, of course, is the return of McIlroy’s swagger, so crisp and assertive. Though it’s been a while since he confirmed his wunderkind status with four major championships in 15 tries (2011 U.S. Open to 2014 PGA Championship), McIlroy remains arguably the game’s most effusive attraction, easily liked by fans, adored by media and admired by peers. The ever-popular statement that gets bandied about—“When (pick a name) is at his best, he is the game’s best”—usually is accompanied by McIlroy’s name filling in that blank.
Sounds like he feels it should be, too.
“I know I’m playing well,” he said at THE PLAYERS. “I know I’m shooting the scores and hitting the shots. I’m confident in the path that I’m on.”
The fact that the path took him across 72 wondrous holes at the first PLAYERS Championship in March since 2006 and at a time when his game and personality were clearly on form made for arguably one of the most glorious editions of this flagship event. Fulfilling the vision PGA TOUR officials had for the return to March—a greener PLAYERS Stadium Course with consistent rough, firmer greens, cooler and more challenging wind, an engaged and festive crowd in a spring-break mood—marquee names joined the fray.
McIlroy (67-65) and Tommy Fleetwood shared the 36-hole lead but got passed by Jon Rahm’s sizzling 64 in Round 3. With Rahm at 15-under and one clear of McIlroy (70) and Fleetwood, others were in the mix—Day sitting two back, Dustin Johnson tied with Keegan Bradley and Furyk at 10-under.
What played out in Round 4 will be memorable—from the inexplicable (Rahm attempting a risky shot out of a fairway bunker on the par-5 11th that he deposited into water to halt his chances) to the improbable (Furyk stuffing an approach at 18 for a birdie that seemed to signal victory, until McIlroy birdied 15 and 16). But mostly, THE PLAYERS 2019 will be recalled for McIlroy’s masterful work that left him overflowing with pride.
The drilled 6-iron from 180 yards from a fairway bunker to birdie 15, the two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th, the hold-your-breath shot onto the island green 17th and the gut-check of a drive into the fairway at 18 were the finishing touches he had not had at any of his previous five 2019 tournaments (T-4, T-5, T-4, 2nd, T-6), so he flashed the infectious McIlroy smile.
“The fact that this win has come at this tournament, a tournament where Sawgrass and I didn’t have the greatest relationship [he missed the cut his first three tries and had a short week and a T-35 his last two seasons] and I’m very thankful to the PGA TOUR for putting it back to March. That was very helpful for me.”
Polite kid, but the truth is, it was moved back to March for everyone. McIlroy just happened to take advantage better than anyone.
Character Study: Rory Recovered After Weekend Hiccups
History will document final-round birdies at the 15th and 16th holes as the deciding shots in Rory McIlroy’s triumph at THE PLAYERS Championship 2019. But the dynamic Northern Irishman had a wider focus.
“I needed to show a lot of character out there,” he said, pointing specifically to early weekend hiccups. He started bogey-bogey in Round 3, then on Sunday he doubled the par-4 fourth.
How he recovered is what made him proud. McIlroy was 4-under the final 16 holes Saturday and 4-under the final 14 Sunday. For the tournament, he made just that one double and five other bogeys, only one of which came on the back nine, where McIlroy was 12 under.
Beyond leading the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and finishing third in Greens in Regulation, McIlroy was immense over the watery finish; he had an eagle, three birdies and eight pars over the par-5 16th, island-green par-3 17th and demanding par-4 18th.
This article first appeared in the PGA TOUR June-November 2019 issue, which can be read here.