After winning the FedEx Cup title in August and taking PGA Tour player-of-the-year honours, few would have blamed Rory McIlroy for easing through the rest of 2019. Instead, the 30-year-old from Northern Ireland doubled down on the notion that there was more to play for in the calendar year, specifically a gap in the World Ranking between where he was (No.2) and where he wanted to be (No.1, the spot currently occupied by Brooks Koepka) that needed closing.
McIlroy proved it wasn’t just talk, coming out and winning the WGC-HSBC Champions in his second PGA Tour start of the 2019-’20 season. It was McIlroy’s fourth tournament victory in the nearly eight months and his 16th top-10 performance in 20 starts in 2019.
There was nothing cheap about McIlroy’s 18th career tour win, either. A Sunday 68, his second consecutive bogey-free round, push him to 19-under 269. But also pushing him was defending champion Xander Schauffele, whose closing 66 with birdies on the 15th and 18th holes, matched McIlroy’s 72-hole total and forced a playoff.
— George Savaricas (@GeorgeSavaricas) November 3, 2019
Returning to the par-5 18th at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, McIlroy split the fairway and hit a 4-iron to 20 feet with his second shot. Meanwhile, Schauffele’s drive found the left rough, forcing him to lay up. Schauffele’s approach left him a 12-footer for birdie, but when he missed the putt, McIlroy’s two-putt for birdie gave him the title.
“Even though it’s the end of the year, there’s still a lot to play for. At least there is for me, anyway,” said McIlroy, who finished third for third the previous week in Japan at the Zozo Championship. “You need to find things to motivate you and those are the things that motivated me to travel all this way to Asia and play hard the last couple weeks, and excited about how I’ve played.”
Schauffele’s charge was impressive considering he had been fighting the flu all week. Playing in the final threesome with McIlroy, Schauffele knew full well he had to have at least a birdie on the final hole if he hoped to become the first player to ever repeat at the WGC-HSBC Champions. As for the playoff, Schauffele joked that the odds were a bit stacked against him.
— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) November 3, 2019
“I would have much rather played a par 3 for a playoff or something [instead of a par 5],” Schauffele said. “He’s the best driver in our game. So if I was a betting man, I probably would have bet on him if we had to play the hole over and over again.”
McIlroy will compete once more this year as he plans to play in the European Tour’s season finale in Dubai later this month. At that point, he says, he’ll take a moment to appreciate the year and all he has accomplished.
“The last 18 months, I’ve been very settled,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been comfortable with everything, my game, my equipment, my body’s been healthy, or healthier. It’s actually – I struggled with some back problems in my early 20s, and knock-on-wood, my body feels as good as it ever has at 30.
“I’m excited for the future. I feel like this year compares to 2014, 2015, but I don’t see any reason why I can’t go ahead and have an even better year next year.”
As for McIlroy’s peers, don’t say you haven’t been warned.