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12D AGO

Rory McIlroy is ‘back’ after dominant Wells Fargo performance

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Pulls away with 8-under, eight-hole stretch for fourth win at Quail Hollow



    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rory McIlroy wasn’t comfortable on either of the par 3s on Quail Hollow Club’s front nine. They both presented awkward yardages that made it difficult for him to accomplish the swing thought that he’d unlocked two weeks earlier while winning the Zurich Classic of New Orleans alongside partner Shane Lowry.

    He hit a short iron into a bunker at Quail Hollow’s fourth hole and made bogey, then missed the green left two holes later. He walked down the hill with his club behind him, his hands spread shoulder-width apart, holding the shaft parallel to the ground. He stopped on a forward tee to make a practice swing.

    He looked like a man searching for his swing on a Sunday. It is not an enviable state. McIlroy saved par but fell two behind Xander Schauffele on the next hole after three-putting for par and watching Schauffele hole a 12-footer for eagle.

    The months preceding the Zurich Classic were frustrating enough that McIlroy made a pilgrimage from south Florida to Las Vegas to see swing coach Butch Harmon. It seemed Sunday that the frustrations may continue, that the good vibes that emanated from McIlroy’s karaoke performance at TPC Louisiana may have possessed a short shelf life.


    McIlroy, Lowry sing 'Don't Stop Believin’' after winning Zurich Classic 


    Things can change quickly in this game, however. Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship was another example. In a handful of holes, McIlroy went from trailing his playing partner to reasserting himself as one of the planet’s top players, among the few who can present a challenge to Scottie Scheffler at next week’s PGA Championship. McIlroy displayed a skill set that few can emulate but all hold in awe.

    It started on the short eighth hole, where McIlroy made a 12-foot birdie putt and Schauffele missed from just inside him. Then McIlroy hit a “flighted” 8-iron into the next hole, the same sort of partial shot that had perplexed him earlier in the round. This one flew straight at the flag and stopped 10 feet behind the flag. He made the putt to draw even with Schauffele.


    Rory McIlroy sticks approach to set up birdie at Wells Fargo


    It was the start of an eight-hole stretch that was reminiscent of McIlroy’s most inspired performances, the type that once drew comparisons to peak Tiger Woods and make McIlroy look unbeatable. When McIlroy is on, his flowing tempo produces an unparalleled combination of length and accuracy, leaving him short approach shots that allow birdies and eagles to come with ease. McIlroy at his peak produces the sort of fawning that infuriates his detractors, but that any objective observer must admit is incomparable.


    Rory McIlroy drains 33-footer for eagle to take the lead at Wells Fargo


    On Sunday at Quail Hollow, those unassailable skills allowed him to play the eight holes from Nos. 8-15 in 8-under par, quickly turning his showdown with one of the world’s top-five players into a rout.

    If McIlroy and Schauffele were playing match play, McIlroy would’ve won seven of those eight holes, the lone exception being when they both made par on the 11th. Schauffele made two birdies during that stretch, but McIlroy eagled both holes.


    Rory McIlroy holes out from bunker for eagle at Wells Fargo


    “He's Rory McIlroy, you know?” said Schauffele. “He hits it 350 yards in the air downwind and he has shorter clubs into firm greens than anyone else. When he's on, he's on.”

    McIlroy was on, indeed.

    An inconsequential double-bogey 6 at the last hole gave McIlroy a five-shot win, his largest winning margin since he won the 2019 RBC Canadian Open by seven. This was McIlroy’s 26th PGA TOUR victory and fourth at the Wells Fargo Championship, his most at any PGA TOUR event.

    “Whenever I sort of hit some of these milestones or do these things, I always think back to, for example, like 20-year-old me playing in this tournament for the first time,” McIlroy said. “If I had known back then that this is the way everything was going to pan out, I probably wouldn't have believed you. Anytime things like this happen, I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that I have the opportunity to do what I do.”

    He shot a final-round 62 to win his first PGA TOUR title here in 2010, broke his own course record five years later to win by seven and then won again at Quail Hollow in 2021.

    He shot Sunday’s low score in this year’s win, a 65 that was marred only by that closing double bogey on an approach that caught the creek past the green. He finished at 17-under 267 (67-68-67-65) to win by five on a week where firm greens gave a major-championship feel. Schauffele was the only other player to finish double digits under par.

    “I know what I’m capable of,” McIlroy said. “Whenever I fire on all cylinders, this is what I can produce.”

    It was a performance that was unlocked by the victory in his previous start, where the joy that accompanied winning alongside his friend, and the swing key he uncovered in New Orleans, allowed McIlroy to swing freely.

    Now he will arrive at Valhalla for this week’s PGA Championship on a two-tournament winning streak. The last player to win a major after claiming his previous two starts? That was McIlroy in the 2014 PGA, also at Valhalla, which he won after victories at The Open and World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.

    “Going to a venue next week where I've won,” he said, “it feels like the stars are aligning a little bit.”


    Rory McIlroy’s news conference after winning Wells Fargo Championship


    The 2014 PGA Championship was his fourth major victory in a three-year stretch, but he has not won one since. McIlroy is often compared to that former version of himself, and those comparisons will likely be renewed in Kentucky as questions are posed about his 10 years without another major. McIlroy insists he is a better player than he was then, and a better person.

    Yes, he admits that he possessed a “killer instinct” that has been missing in recent years, but McIlroy enjoys the process of personal growth too much to remain an avatar of a former self. Just as he shed his baby fat for a sleeker, more muscular build, McIlroy’s mind has also undergone a transformation. An enthusiastic reader of self-help books, McIlroy’s growth mindset has led him on a quest for enlightenment. Being less brash may make him less dominant, but his emotions and his game have become more even-keeled, leveling out the peaks and the valleys and producing more consistency on and off the course.

    “I've been sort of banging this drum for the last few years, but I'm a way better player now than I was back then,” McIlroy said. “I haven't had the major record to back that up, but I've had the wins, I've done everything else there is to do in the game since 2014. The only thing I need to do is get another major. You know, a win like this going into the PGA Championship next week is a good way to prep for that.”

    McIlroy’s best showings are always set up by his driving. He said he unlocked a swing key at the Zurich that carried over to this week. Being on familiar fairways also helped him swing without inhibition. He averaged 325.5 yards on all tee shots this week, 8.5 yards longer than the No. 2 player in that stat. He led the field in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and SG: Tee-to-Green, and he was second in both Greens in Regulation and average Proximity to the Hole.

    The shots that made him the happiest weren’t tee shots, but the finesse irons he hit that displayed greater variety in his shotmaking.

    “The two best shots I hit today were the three-quarter 8-iron into nine and the 9-iron into 13, just really good iron shots when I needed to hit them,” McIlroy said Sunday. “So that gives me more satisfaction and more confidence than any of the drives I hit out there.”


    Rory McIlroy takes nice line off the tee to set up birdie at Wells Fargo


    He succeeded throughout the bag, ranking in the top 10 in every Strokes Gained category (Off-the-Tee, Approach-the-Green, Around-the-Green and Putting). He also got up and down 17 times in 23 opportunities to rank second in scrambling for the week.

    His bogey at the fourth hole Sunday was his lone bogey in a 53-hole span that commenced with the start of the second round. The only other over-par hole he had was the inconsequential double bogey at the last hole, which cut his winning margin to five shots.

    “I’ve never seen someone who reminds me of Tiger Woods more than when Rory McIlroy is in full flight,” CBS analyst Trevor Immelman said on the broadcast.

    McIlroy made five putts from outside of 10 feet Sunday, including a 34-footer for eagle on No. 10 (where Schauffele missed a 12-foot eagle putt of his own). McIlroy’s short game helped him maintain his newfound lead when he missed both the fairway and green at Nos. 11 and 12. The bunker shot he holed to eagle the par-5 15th bordered on the outrageous, McIlroy making a mockery of a golf course that played more than a stroke over par Sunday.

    The victory was McIlroy’s first individual title on the PGA TOUR since the Genesis Scottish Open last July and his first individual title in the United States since THE CJ CUP in South Carolina in the fall of 2022. The Hero Dubai Desert Classic, which he won in January, was his only individual title between the Genesis Scottish Open and Wells Fargo. Before the Zurich, McIlroy had finished inside the top 15 once in eight PGA TOUR starts this year.

    “I just went through a bit of a quiet spell there for a couple of months at the start of this year,” he said, “but I feel like I'm back where I need to be.”

    Sean Martin is a senior editor for the PGA TOUR. He is a 2004 graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Attending a small school gave him a heart for the underdog, which is why he enjoys telling stories of golf's lesser-known players. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.

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