Leaderboard gravity. That’s what NBC’s Paul Azinger called it when there were several golfers with a chance to take the lead at THE PLAYERS on Sunday.
And like regular gravity, the sheer weight of the moment brought most of them down, one after one, until only Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland remained at 16-under 272. The exception was local Jim Furyk, who advanced all afternoon and then was beaten by one stroke, finishing at 15-under 273.
McIlroy, who has been a wunderkind since turning professional, has been inundated in recent months with questions about not winning lately and not capitalizing on final-round opportunities. He only got those questions because he is such an exceptional player, expected by most to close out any tournament when he is within four of the lead. When he doesn’t, people want to know “what’s wrong,” even if it’s something as simple as just getting outplayed by another world-class golfer.
McIlroy believes the last few months of not winning assisted him in turning the corner.
“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,” he said after winning THE PLAYERS. “The fact that this win has come at this golf tournament, a tournament where Sawgrass and I didn't have the greatest relationship starting off, and I'm very thankful to the PGA TOUR for putting it back to March. That was very helpful for me.”
The rest of the field didn’t make it easy, at first, and neither did the golf course.
Those who were in the lead or within two shots of the lead during the day included Furyk, Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Ollie Schniederjans, Abraham Ancer, Jhonattan Vegas, Jason Day and little-known Eddie Pepperell from England. Pepperell even finished as clubhouse leader about an hour before McIlroy was walking up 18.
As the day wore on, the scores went topsy-turvy several times with golfers shooting up and down, in and out of contention. You needed a magnet board with names to shift people in and out of the top spot. For a while, there were three or four tied for first and at least four or five tied for second. You couldn’t blink or somebody would change positions.
McIlroy hurt his own chances with a double-bogey at the fourth hole. He came up short with his second shot. Water.
“I wasn't aiming that far left for sure,” he explained. “I was trying to land it like 10 yards on the green just right of the hazard, and if it had have been just that little further right, it would have probably landed in a good spot, but it just came out a little bit left.”
While a birdie at the sixth was helpful, the following-hole bogey didn’t help him much. He finally made another birdie, however, at the ninth, and righted the ship.
The back side is where McIlroy put the tournament away. Even though it wasn’t perfect golf, it was good enough golf to win. There’s a difference. Sometimes golfers just don’t miss a shot, but usually at TPC Sawgrass that doesn’t happen. It’s how a guy recovers that matters.
For instance, McIlroy had a bogey on 14, usually the toughest hole on the course, and then his drive at the 15th went into he wasn’t sure what. Because of where the marshal was standing, he feared it was in some unmentionable grass stuff that might make his next shot impossible, but it was a clean lie in the bunker. He was relieved and hit a 6-iron.
“The second shot on 15 to set up that birdie putt was the best shot of the day by far,” he said.
He made the 14-footer for a much-needed birdie.
Like most who win THE PLAYERS, McIlroy played the final holes well. He birdied the 16th, then headed to the 17th tee.
“(I) kept telling myself on the way to the 17th tee, just make three more good swings,” McIlroy said. “To step up and make those three good swings, it's very satisfying knowing that it's in there when it needs to be.”
He ultimately made par on 17 and 18, and picked up his first win at THE PLAYERS. He joins Tiger Woods and Henrik Stenson as the only players to win at least one FedExCup, THE PLAYERS, a major and a World Golf Championships event.
While it’s an intangible, McIlroy said he likes the March date versus May. He said the rye grass does a better job of visually defining fairways and rough. It gives him a better landing area for his ballistic drives. So, certainly, he’s a fan of the change. And he’s gaining life perspective.
For Jim Furyk, who finished a few holes ahead of McIlroy and was in the lead at the time he came up 18, it was a welcome experience. He’s been injured most of the last two or three years. Finally healthy, some good golf came out. A change to the arm-lock putting style has also helped.
“I felt like I was pretty solid from 5 feet and in,” Furyk said. “But I wasn't making a lot of 8- to 20-footers for birdie, or even better yet, I didn't think I was hitting quality putts and giving enough of those putts a chance to go in.”
He messed around with arm-lock. But he was not convinced it would work for him. Then, just as Tim Clark had given Webb Simpson a tip on arm-lock putting, Simpson gave Furyk a tip. And ultimately he said it proved to be the difference.
“I've told him like six times since how much I appreciate his help,” Furyk said. “He spent 60 seconds with me, and in 60 seconds he gave me two tips, and one of them has changed my focus on how I putt with that putter. And it was the way he grips it. He said, there's two ways to grip it with your left arm, Bryson (DeChambeau) and Stewart (Cink) do it one way, he and Kuch (Matt Kuchar) maybe do it another.”
So, the first tournament with a gold trophy, return to March and St. Patrick’s Day date is in the books. As expected, the weather could have been 85 or 55, and it was — all in one week. The luck of the Irish, however, must be real, because not only did McIlroy win THE PLAYERS on St. Patrick’s Day, he also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2018 on St. Patrick’s Day.