It wasn’t enough that the best players in the game had to get the better of a TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course that can double as a 7,189-yard migraine headache to win The Players Championship.
That a $2,25 million paycheck awaited the winner. That 15 players including A-list stars were stampeding to the finish line, seven of whom held at least a share of the lead during the final round.
Nope, the Sunday blanket of pressure involved another tormenting factor to be conquered – the elements. But the swirling winds, occasional rain and bitter temperatures just added to the heart-racing theater that featured one show-stopper after another in the final hours of the PGA Tour’s flagship event.
When the Players curtain was finally drawn, and the thrills and chills blew out to the nearby sea, Northern Irishman and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy was holding the new gold trophy awarded the victor. On St. Patrick’s Day, no less.
In winning his first Players, the former Boy Wonder finally broke through to end a yearlong winless streak that was full of so many close calls from Dubai to Scotland to Hawaii, from Los Angeles to Mexico to Orlando.
With clutch shots throughout the back nine – a birdie from a fairway bunker on the 11th, another birdie from a fairway bunker on the 15th and a two-putt birdie on the 16th – the 29-year-old McIlroy held off local favorite Jim Furyk to win by one shot.
“I needed to show a lot of character out there,” McIlroy said. “I think all the experiences I’ve had over the last few weeks in terms of trying to win and not getting over the line definitely helped me today. Maybe if I hadn’t had those experiences, I wouldn’t be sitting up here with this trophy, so I’m thankful and grateful for those experiences I’ve had this year.”
McIlroy fired a final-round, 2-under-par 70 to finish at 16 under. Furyk, who at 48 was playing in his 23rd Players, closed with a 67.
Eddie Pepperell and Jhonattan Vegas each shot 66 to finish in a tie for third, two shots back. Dustin Johnson (69), Brandt Snedeker (69) and Tommy Fleetwood (73) tied for fifth, three shots back.
McIlroy came into The Players with five top-6 finishes and without a victory in five starts this season as he tried to win his 15th Tour title. All was good, he said over and over, that demons were not haunting him. He was in a good place, he’d often say, that a new perspective he took to the course was as important as any club in his bag.
He worked to make sure golf didn’t define him as a person, whereas in the past golf would set his mood, good or bad.
The approach paid off as McIlroy is now in a great place.
“I’ve been disciplined this year in not reading a lot of stuff about myself, so that has helped because I haven’t read any of the negativity,” said McIlroy, the former world No. 1 who moved to No. 4 with his win. “Everything was in a really good place, and that’s why I was just preaching patience, and it was just a matter of time.”
McIlroy started Sunday one shot out of the lead set by Jon Rahm and doubled the par-4 fourth when he dumped his second shot into the water hazard guarding the green. But he got rolling with birdies at the sixth and ninth and then shot 3-under 33 on the back nine.
He took the outright lead with a birdie on the 12th from 12 feet but relinquished the lead with a bogey on the 14th. On the 15th, however, his second from 180 yards out of the fairway bunker with a 6-iron set up a birdie from 14 feet.
“My best shot of the day. By far,” McIlroy said.
He grabbed the outright lead again on the par-5 16th when he two-putted from 19 feet. He escaped the dangerous par-3 17th with a two-putt par and protected his one-shot lead on the 18th with a textbook par on the water-protected hole.
The ever-changing leaderboard had McIlroy, Furyk, Rahm, Fleetwood, Pepperell, Abraham Ancer and Ollie Schniederjans all grabbing at least a share of the lead. Other prominent players in the picture included Snedeker, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama, Adam Scott and Brian Harman.
“I think the toughest part is seeing yourself up there, whatever score you’re on, and seeing 10 or 11 guys with a chance,” McIlroy said.
One by one, players came up just short until McIlroy closed things out.
“I’m so pleased that this good run of golf has culminated in getting a win early in the season, but it’s not just a win early in the season, it’s a massive win,” McIlroy said. “It’s a tournament that I’ve never won before on a golf course that I’ve had mixed results on, so I feel like I’m going to take even more from that. And I had to grind it out down the stretch, which I’ll take a lot from.”