If you're surprised that Rory McIlroy won the 2019 Players Championship after the way he started the year, you shouldn't be. And if you're surprised at how Rory McIlroy won the 2019 Players Championship after the way he started his career, you definitely shouldn't be.
McIlroy shot a tough 70-70 on the weekend and closed out Sunday's round with five birdies in his last 10 holes to shoot 16-under 272 on the week and clip Jim Furyk (!!) by a single stroke. With the chips down late, McIlroy went to his greatest weapon and put his name ... err face on the Players Championship trophy.
Following a ridiculous birdie from a tough spot in a fairway bunker on the par-4 15th to get to 15 under for the week, McIlroy unsheathed the driver on the par-5 16th and hit his tee shot 347 yards. It did not bounce. It did not roll. That's how far he carried it.
From there, it was a pretty simple birdie, even though he was a little bit off the fairway because he only had 174 yards to the stick. He walked to No. 17 at 16 under and up one on Furyk. A par at the always nervy island green led McIlroy to the 18th. With Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood collapsing on themselves behind him, he knew he likely only needed par to win.
"The tee shot at 18 is way more stressful than 17," McIlroy told ESPN earlier this week.
You wouldn't know it from the drive McIlroy hit. With some questioning whether he should again pull driver on the watery par-4 closing hole, McIlroy uncorked a missile straight down the middle. From there it was par and his first tournament win since last year's Arnold Palmer Invitational.
"Up 18 I picked my target and said to myself, 'It's one good swing,'" McIlroy told Golf Channel. "'You've made plenty of good swings today. You just need one more.' As soon as I made contact I knew it was straight up the middle of the fairway. That gives me confidence going forward."
It's not as if the victory was without precedent. McIlroy came into this week leading the PGA Tour in strokes gained this season, and you could make the argument that he's been the best player in the world in 2019 even without a win. He hadn't finished outside the top six in any of his first five starts. He was rock solid throughout the year.
T4— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) March 17, 2019
Good luck trying to stop the Augusta hype train this year Rory!
"It was all those experiences I had starting the year," McIlroy told NBC. "It's a culmination of getting those experiences. I felt more and more comfortable each time. I almost liked today because it was tough. I knew guys weren't going to get away from us. ... I stayed as patient as I possibly could. Every time I looked at the leaderboard I was pleasantly surprised that I hadn't fallen two or three shots behind. That gave me a little encouragement to keep going and play a great back nine."
And this is how McIlroy used to win golf tournaments. We like to get all starry-eyed when McIlroy starts galloping from behind on a weekend at these events, but the guy who won four majors always started hot and defended late. A 67-65 start and 70-70 close was reminiscent of that.
"[Winning is] hard," McIlroy told Golf Channel. "It was a difficult day. You have guys starting 2-3 hours before us, they go out and shoot 66 or 67 and post a number. It's tough. The depths of field. This is probably the deepest field of the year. There's so much on the line. I'm thankful it was my turn this week. I felt like if I just stayed patient enough and waited my turn, things would work out for me, and I'm glad they have."
So a season that didn't need it got a jolt of electricity anyway with the Masters a little over three weeks away. The numbers above are eye-opening. McIlroy joins Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus with four majors and 15 PGA Tour wins before age 30. And he joins a certified hall-of-fame level crew with four majors and a Players in his career.
Maybe McIlroy doesn't win as much as he used to, but his start to 2019 is a reminder of how much there still is in the tank and his win at Sawgrass is a reminder of what he can still be. In the deepest field of the year, with all manner of contenders chipping away at whoever had the lead in a given moment it was Rory who wagged his finger and his driver and reminded us that he's still a world class closer within a deep generation of world class closers. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2019 Players Championship.
Jim Furyk (2nd): Furyk tried to take on the entire 2018 European Ryder Cup team by himself! His final shot on No. 18 should go in a museum, and if not for a missed 3-footer earlier in the day, it would have gotten him into a playoff. Grade: A+
Tommy Fleetwood (T5): He finally fell apart on Sunday, but it was awesome to watch the fight throughout. I could watch him play golf every day for the rest of my career covering golf. One hilarious thing I've noticed he's started doing is looking at cameras with his eyebrows raised after hitting certain shots or doing something zany on the course (see below). I'm here for it. Grade: A
Sergio Garcia (T22): The Spaniard added some nice coin to his tournament-leading $5.34 million career earnings coming in. He made everything he looked at on the greens on Sunday, which would have been just delightful had he been in contention. And now, since he was disqualified in Saudi Arabia for scuffing up multiple greens, Garcia has finished in the top 40 in four straight events, including two top 10s. Grade: B-
Tiger Woods and Kevin Na (T30 and MDF): Woods played fine this week while Na was a MDF. But their real shining moment came on the famous 17th hole on Saturday when they tried to one-up one another with how quickly they could get their birdie putts out of the hole. If that sounds silly (which it might), it wasn't. It was one of the most fun exchanges of the entire tournament. Grade (for both): A
Also, this was underrated (and awesome).
Phil Mickelson (MC): Lefty didn't play well all week, but he did have one significant impact on this championship. Rory McIlroy twice noted that he tried shots he might not have otherwise just because he'd been watching Mickelson all week. One was a tee shot on No. 1 on Friday that led to bogey, but the other was a high, faded wedge from under a tree on No. 18 on Friday that led to a big boy par. I'm here for Mickelson being McIlroy's swing/mental coach when he's done playing. Grade: F
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