Rory McIlroy said the CJ Cup at The Summit provided a nice, gentle introduction to his season in America’s Playground, the limited field of 78 players, docile layout and no cut very appealing.
Turned out it served up a satisfying ending, too.
And proved pivotal, as well, as Rory McIlroy is back to being Rory McIlroy again.
On a sun-splashed, windless Sunday in the desert 10 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, McIlroy held off Collin Morikawa and Rickie Fowler to win the par-busting shootout. With a loud eagle on the 13th to grab the lead he never relinquished, the four-time major winner shot a closing 6-under-par 66 to finish at 25 under and one shot clear of the onrushing Morikawa and three clear of a rejuvenated Fowler.
Three weeks after being moved to tears on the final day of Europe’s crushing defeat to the U.S. in the Ryder Cup, McIlroy earned his 20th PGA Tour title at age 32. That will reward him with lifetime membership on the PGA Tour, but he needs to play 15 years before becoming a lifetime member; he started his 13th this week
“I was really disappointed with how I played (at the Ryder Cup),” McIlroy said. “I get more emotional thinking about that than even thinking about this. There was a lot of reflection the last couple weeks and this is what I need to do. I just need to play golf, I need to simplify it, I need to just be me.
“I think for the last few months I was maybe trying to be someone else to try to get better and I sort of realized that being me is enough and being me, I can do things like this. I know that when I do the things that I do well, this is what I’m capable of. I’m capable of winning a lot of events on the PGA Tour and being the best player in the world.
“It’s just a matter of me getting back to playing golf and playing golf my way. That starts with being creative and being visual and maybe sort of sifting through the technical thoughts and not maybe being as technical with it.”
Morikawa, who was 11 shots back after 36 holes and trailed by seven entering the final round, went out in 7-under 29 and finished with an eagle to shoot 62. The two-time major winner and a Summit member was 8 under through 11 holes before cooling off until the final hole.
“Whenever you shoot 62 you’re always going to be pleased, but I thought I left a few out there, especially with some putts. But overall I’m very pleased the way this kind of last 18 went, especially at a course that I’ve played a lot,” said Morikawa, who was trying to win his sixth PGA Tour title in 54 starts. “I felt very comfortable and it’s kind of a good way to start the season.
“Made a lot of birdies, which is always nice.”
Fowler, the overnight leader by two shots after rounds of 66-66-63, finished with a 71 but still had his best showing since tying for second in the 2019 Honda Classic, which came one month after he won the most recent of his five PGA Tour titles at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Fowler only had three top-10s the past two seasons and said he is now back to thinking about winning instead of thinking about the process of getting back to his former ways. He upped his lead to three with a birdie on the first and led by three before making a double from the desert on the par-5 6th and then three-putting the 10th to fall behind.
“It’s definitely nice,” he said. “It felt good to finally hit the golf ball properly, at least most of the time, for 72 holes. A lot of quality shots, a lot of good swings this week. Drove the ball well, which set me up to play golf around this place.
“I felt like I struggled a bit on the greens. Wasn’t necessarily a line issue; it was more of a speed issue. Other than that, happy with the rest of it.”
With little wind all week and the course offering little defense except for the surrounding desert, the players held a birdie and eagle festival and combined to average 68.5 per round for the week. There were 18 scores of 65 or better, including two 61s and five 62s.
Keith Mitchell, who shot 62-64 to gain a five-shot lead through 54 holes, closed with a 67 to finish at 22 under alongside Fowler.
Four players finished at 21 under, including Adam Scott (69) and Talor Gooch, who holed out from 94 yards for eagle on the last to polish off a 62.
Earlier in the week, McIlroy, who had fallen to No. 14 in the world heading into the CJ Cup, said when he plays his best, he can be the best player in the game. Well, he looked in full flight quite a bit this week at The Summit and seems more than capable of becoming No. 1 in the world once again.
Especially on the weekend. After 36 holes, McIlroy trailed by nine shots but then shot 62 to earn a spot in the last group on Sunday. And his best on Sunday came on the 12th, where he drove the green from 342 yards away and two-putted for birdie, and then on the 14th where he knocked in a 35-footer from just in front of the green for eagle.
“I’ve putted great all week,” said McIlroy, who earned his 19th PGA Tour title earlier this year at the Wells Fargo Championship. “I’ve loved these greens. Once I get on bent greens and you don’t have to read much more into it just than the slope, there’s no grain or anything, it sort of simplifies it for you.
“That was sort of the bedrock of the game. I did other things well, but I really putted great, exemplified by the putt on 14 for eagle that sort of separated me from the pack today. I was able to just sort of cruise in from there.”
And as for his 20th PGA Tour title?
“It’s quite an achievement,” said McIlroy, who has won 30 worldwide events. “It’s a pretty big carrot. It’s pretty significant. I think when you can do something to achieve lifetime membership on Tour; I still need to play another couple years after this one to actually get it, but that’s great. So by the time I’m 34, 35, not having to worry about minimums on Tour and being able to really set a schedule, and especially at that point when kids will be getting into school age and maybe wanting to spend a little bit more time at home, that’s important.
“When you look to the bigger things in life, getting to that level, I can pick and choose where I play nowadays anyway, but that makes it even better and less of a burden, I guess.”