It was only going to be a matter of time until Rory McIlroy posted another win and the venue he broke through showed his pedigree in winning The Players Championship at the Stadium Course at TPC / Sawgrass. For a number of weeks the Northern Irishman exhibited a steady game via continual high finishes but claiming the PGA Tour’s flagship event was quite impressive.
McIlroy had not won since the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational and the persistent issues raised concerns for his inability to finish off tournaments. Rory has played in six PGA Tour events since the Sentry Tournament of Champions — his worst finish 6th. The continual wherewithal to always be in the mix showed plenty but the win at The Players now signals a break through that could very well reach a crescendo when the Northern Irishman reaches Augusta in a few weeks. Think of it this way McIlroy’s win at The Stadium Course was his 15th on the PGA Tour. He joins the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to have won at least four majors and 15 wins before the age of 30. That’s elite company.
When heading to Augusta National, McIlroy will seek to do what only one other person has done — win The Players and Masters in the same year. The lone person do so? Woods in 2001. Again elite company should he accomplish that.
By winning his first green jacket McIlroy would join one of golf’s most prestigious groups — men having won all the Grand Slam events in a career. The names of Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods make up that august group. McIlroy would become the first European player to do so.
Rory’s last major win came in 2014. That’s nearly five years ago. While others named Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka have garnered headlines since that time McIlroy has been holding in place. What many thought would be a dominant presence in the manner of Woods when winning back-to-back majors in ’14 resulted in a stifling plateau position.
Credit McIlroy for demonstrating serious grit at The Players. He did not get off to a fast start and when he bogied the par-4 14th after missing a very makeable putt the possibility existed the round might come off the rails resulting in another high finish but no title to show for it. At the 15th hole Rory pushed his tee shot into a fairway bunker. It was at this moment McIlroy did what all great players do — bouncing back and righting the ship immediately. His approach to 15 feet was followed by center-cut putt for birdie and back into a tie for the lead.
At the par-5 16th he absolutely flushed a tee shot of 347 yards leaving him no more than 174 yards and a 9-iron — no misprint here — into the green. The two putt birdie pushed him in front and he followed with two air-tight pars at the devilish 17th and 18th holes to seal the deal.
Winning tournaments down the stretch is where the elite players shine. Think of the happenings for two of Rory’s fellow Ryder Cup teammates during The Players. Jon Rahm led going into Sunday’s final round yet coughed up all over himself with a disappointing 76. Tommy Fleetwood played magnificently through the first 36 holes with a 132 total but came up limping for the final two rounds posting a 143 total. Getting into positon to win is half the battle — closing the door and emerging victorious is the mark of a champion. Rahm and Fleetwood still need to demonstrate the critical final chapter.
No one more than McIlroy realizes ghosts of previous Masters still linger. Until he wins at Augusta the critics will be waiting. Last year he was paired with eventual winner Patrick Reed and the day prior McIlroy spoke about how much pressure there would be on Reed to see things through. The reality of the final round from last year’s event crystalized completely when Rory blew a fairly easy eagle putt at the par-5 2nd and from that moment he had the look of a deer frozen in the headlights of a Patrick Reed sports car.
The windows within golf will certainly remain open given McIlroy’s age. Even if 2019 is not successful in securing a green jacket there will be other years. But the major championship spigot does not run forever and can end suddenly. When Arnold Palmer won his record fourth Masters in 1963 the King was 34 and the future seemed promising for additional majors. None came after that moment in Augusta. The same holds true for Seve Ballesteros after winning his 3rd Open Championship in 1988 at age 31. The promise of future majors looked so sure for the gifted Spaniard. None came after his epic win at Royal Lytham.
McIlroy has tidied up his game considerably and the golfer who imploded in the 2011 Masters with a final round 80 and throwing away a four shot lead going into the final round. That golfer from nearly eight years ago is not remotely close to the vastly experienced player he is now.
The interesting thing about golf is that the more you want something the harder it can be to attain it. Phil Mickelson is looking to complete a career Grand Slam but needs a US Open win to do so even after finishing second a record six times. Jordan Spieth needs to win a PGA Championship to complete the quadrant of majors. Jordan’s game today is at best uncertain but a returning to Augusta may prove reinvigorating for him.
Major championships have always been the ultimate measuring stick when the various generation of players are analyzed. McIlroy showed a good deal at The Players but that event is now in the rear view mirror. A number of elite modern players have failed to win at Augusta. Most notably — Ernie Els.
The Rory story still has plenty of chapters to add in his career but the swagger and gumption he showed with his latest win shows a golfer on a mindful mission. The only golfer of comparable talent is the current number one player in the world Dustin Johnson. Having those two go blow for blow can make for a truly epic event. The countdown is on and a green jacket awaits. Other golfers will no doubt weigh in but McIlroy is fully aware that minus Johnson no golfer globally has the kind of talent he possesses when in full throttle mode.
We shall see.