All those towering tee shots and soaring irons. Rory McIlroy can make golf look easy and pretty.
On a raw, breezy, sunless Sunday at the Players Championship, TPC Sawgrass was anything but. She was mean. The move of the tournament from May to March opened up the scoring and shot-making, yes, but around seemingly every corner was another wreck.
That McIlroy emerged victorious on St Patrick’s Day, his first win in 364 days and only his second in the past 30 months, was poetic. But how he got to the finish line was most telling.
A sloppy par on the par-5 second. A wedge incomprehensibly dumped into the water and a double-bogey on the fourth. A flailed short iron from the middle of the fairway and bogey on 7. McIlroy had come into the final round OMG-for the past nine times he had played in the final group on a Sunday. He was in the second-to-last pairing this time but, semantics. Here we go. Again.
Not this time. This was a coming of age moment, at least from a golf standpoint. Rory the resilient.
He’s enjoying the journey, too.
All week and all year the soon-to-be 30-year-old Northern Irishman has preached not letting his play define who he is as a person. That was for everyone else, noise. Not for someone who, despite all those well-documented Sunday struggles, still hadn’t finished outside the top-six of a tournament this year.
McIlroy has always been wise beyond his years in the perspective department and this was the latest example. Another was his work with a few people on the mental side of his game along with his seeking out of a few self-help books.
“It hasn’t been preached to me,” he said. “It’s something where it’s been a journey for myself, and I’ve figured it out myself, but I’ve definitely had some people point me in the right direction.”
Still, it didn’t hurt to have a little help on Sunday, too.
Jhonattan Vegas missing a golden opportunity from six feet on the last green, also having to settle for being in at 14-under, a number he knew probably wouldn’t be enough given all the firepower still on the course behind him.
Eddie Pepperell, out 90 minutes earlier than the last group, hitting one off the planet on the par-5 second, something that would come back to haunt him when he went unconscious with seven birdies over his final dozen holes to get to the house at 14-under.
Jim Furyk missing a six-footer for par on 15 and making bogey.
Dustin Johnson with a woeful putting performance in which he missed a half-dozen putts from inside 10 feet on Sunday.
Brandt Snedeker shoving his tee shot on 18 into the pine straw, knowing he needed birdie and instead making bogey.
Jason Day, who played alongside McIlroy, making three messy bogeys on the front nine, including one on the par-5 ninth, and managing a pedestrian two birdies on the back.
Tommy Fleetwood, with a fantastic eagle on 16 after knocking his second to three feet, but sandwiching it with a bogey from the fairway on 15 and a water ball on the 17.
Then there was McIlroy.
He figured something in he 60s would be good enough. He shot two-under 70 and it was anyway, thanks to four birdies over his final eight holes. None bigger than on the 15th, where, coming off his lone bogey on the back nine, he hit what he called his best shot of the day, a 6-iron out of the sand from 180 yards to 14 feet. Then he made the putt, too.
“I needed to show a lot of character out there,” he said. “I think all the experiences I’ve had over the past few weeks in terms of trying to win and not getting over the line definitely helped me today.
“I think the toughest part is seeing yourself up there, whatever score you’re on, and seeing 10 or 11 guys with a chance. There’s been a few times where I’ve been in positions like that, and I’ve taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck.”
Another birdie on 16, and McIlroy had the lead alone. The tournament was his to win. Or lose.
God knows plenty of players have lost it on the par-3 17th, their dreams meeting a watery grave. But to McIlroy this was just another tournament. Another hole, too.
“As a pretty decent golfer I think you look at that green and just say, ‘OK, just hit this green,’” he said. “It’s going to be a really bad swing or something is going to be really off not to hit that green. So I picked my target, I choked down, a couple little rehearsals of the swing I wanted to make, and I went. That was it.”
It was it, too, when he piped driver, long the best club in his bag, down the middle of the fairway on 18. Game over.
“It means a lot,” McIlroy said of the victory.
It said plenty, too.