FedExCup triumph caps McIlroy's greatest season
August 25, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Rory McIlroy's Round 4 highlights from TOUR Championship
ATLANTA – The celebration was more muted than the first time Rory McIlroy won the FedExCup. And that was intentional.
When McIlroy holed a 20-foot putt to win at East Lake three years ago, he twice let out a primal scream of “Come On!” His mouth was agape as he looked skyward and puffed out his chest.
The context played a part in his visceral celebration. McIlroy, who holed a wedge shot on the 16th hole of the final round, had to endure a tense playoff to win his first FedExCup.
This time, McIlroy gave a simple downward swing of his fist after he tapped in to complete a four-shot victory at the TOUR Championship.
Since leaving East Lake last year, McIlroy has tried to not be swayed by the emotional swings that are inherent in this game. He doesn’t want his score to define him. This decision was part of McIlroy’s unceasing quest for improvement, what he calls his “personal journey” for both personal and professional improvement.
“Who I am as a person isn't who I am as a golfer, and it took me a while to get to that point where I realized who those two people were,” he said earlier this year.
McIlroy, once the teenage phenom with the mop top of hair, turned 30 earlier this year. A few gray hairs now peek out from under his cap, but there are also advantages to his advancing age. His maturation paid off with the best season of his professional career.
The TOUR Championship was his third win of the season. He also won his first THE PLAYERS Championship and claimed the RBC Canadian Open by sprinting past the field with a final-round 61. This was his first three-win season in five years, and his first campaign with multiple wins since 2016.
Some may say his multiple-major season of 2014, or his dominant 2012, were better, but McIlroy gives the nod to this season. Victories are the most memorable metric for fans, but they’re also an imperfect one. Too much is determined by other players’ performances.
Players emphasize consistency because their play is all they can control. A string of high finishes proves they’re playing well. The wins are just a bonus. McIlroy finished in the top-10 in 75% of his starts this season – only two players other players did that in more than half their starts – and had a career-high 14 top-10s. He missed just two cuts.
“I think some of the work that I’ve put in on the mental side of the game, … I think you’re starting to see the fruition of that,” McIlroy said.
With Sunday’s win, McIlroy joins Tiger Woods as the only two-time FedExCup champions. This was the first year that the FedExCup paid $15 million, a $5 million increase over previous years. It’s an impressive figure – the largest single payout in professional golf history – but there may be another number that means more to him: +2.55.
That’s the number of strokes McIlroy beat the field by per round this season. Officially, it’s known as Strokes Gained: Total. To calculate it, just subtract McIlroy’s score from the field’s scoring average each day.
McIlroy’s mark this season is the highest of this decade, beating his own performance in 2012 (+2.41). It’s also the highest single-season mark by anyone not named Tiger Woods, per 15th Club’s Justin Ray.
At this point, many people are probably rolling their eyes, wondering how any statistic could outweigh an eight-figure check or a major trophy. But this metric says McIlroy just completed the best season of his PGA TOUR career, and he concurs.
“I think it is. We talk about consistency,” he said. “That attitude and consistency, day in, day out, I think that’s what you’ve seen over the course of this year, and hopefully will continue to see going forward.”
Rory McIlroy wins THE PLAYERS Championship
When 2019 began, it had been more than eight months since McIlroy’s last win, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. That was his only PGA TOUR win since the 2016 TOUR Championship.
He started this year with five consecutive top-10 finishes before arriving at TPC Sawgrass for THE PLAYERS Championship. His game was displaying promising signs, but he was also facing questions about his Sunday struggles.
McIlroy ended those queries with his Sunday performance at TPC Sawgrass. He started the final round one stroke off the lead, then 70 to beat Jim Furyk by one. McIlroy overcame a double-bogey on the fourth hole with four back-nine birdies.
TPC Sawgrass was a course that long confounded him. Pete Dye’s design handcuffed him, forcing him to keep his biggest asset, his driver, in the bag. That was in May, though, when the course was firm and fast. The tournament’s move to March, when the course played longer and the temperatures were cooler, allowed him to use that club more often.
He bogeyed the 14th to fall out of the lead, but responded to that miscue by making birdie on the next hole from a fairway bunker. He calls that 6-iron to 15 feet the most important shot of the season.
“That basically set up me going on to win THE PLAYERS Championship. If I don’t win THE PLAYERS, I don’t know what happens after that and where the season might go,” he said.
McIlroy’s streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes ended at the Masters, the one tournament he needs to win to complete the career Grand Slam. He was never in contention at Augusta National, but rebounded from that disappointment with consecutive eighth-place finishes at the PGA and Wells Fargo Championship.
His second win was preceded by a missed cut at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. Having the weekend off was a blessing in disguise, giving him two extra days to prepare for his debut in the RBC Canadian Open, where he had authored one of the most memorable rounds of his career.
McIlroy decided this year that he would no longer work on his swing at a tournament. This week was the first that his swing coach, Michael Bannon, was on-site. McIlroy believes it’s another reason he was so steady this season.
“I made a plan at the start of the year not to really focus or worry about my swing the week that I’m playing,” he said. “I think you should do your work before the tournament starts, and then once you’re there, just go with what you have. That’s basically what I did this year.”
McIlroy entered the final round tied with Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson, but flirted with 59 to win by seven.
Rory McIlroy shoots final-round 61 to win RBC Canadian Open
Even the best golf season is not be devoid of disappointment, though. For McIlroy, it came in his home country. The Open was visiting Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush for the first time in more than 50 years, but McIlroy’s stay was short. He knocked his first tee shot out-of-bounds and shot 79. A spirited Friday-afternoon charge, in front of a raucous crowd that was trying to will him to the weekend, fell short, but McIlroy was so touched by the outpouring that he got choked up in post-round interviews.
McIlroy’s game left him at an inopportune time in the next week, as well. He shot 62 in the third round of the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational to set up a heavyweight fight with Brooks Koepka in Sunday’s final group. McIlroy hit more like a featherweight, though. He made just one birdie and lost by five.
Those disappointments set the stage for the TOUR Championship. They showed McIlroy, who’d been trying so hard to stay even-keeled, that there were still appropriate times to channel his emotions.
“Brooks went out there in Memphis and shot 65 and just basically dominated the tournament, dominated me. And I realized if I want to become the dominant player in the world again, I need to be more like that,” McIlroy said. “I guess that's the ultimate compliment I can give Brooks, that today I wanted to be a little bit more like him.”
Rory McIlroy closes Round 3 with long birdie at WGC-FedEx St. Jude
McIlroy arrived at East Lake ranked fifth in the FedExCup and five shots behind leader Justin Thomas. McIlroy started the final round a stroke behind Koepka, setting up another final pairing between the season’s two best players.
Koepka struggled with his driving, including a lost ball on the seventh hole. McIlroy, who shot a bogey-free 33 on Sunday’s front nine, took a one-shot lead at the turn.
He ranked in the top 25 of the four Strokes Gained statistics that measure each aspect of the game (Off-the-Tee, Approach, Around-the-Green, Putting), and he exhibited that well-rounded game on the final nine of the season. McIlroy pulled away early on the back nine, beating Koepka by four strokes on the first four holes of that side.
He parred the 10th hole, then executed a delicate flop shot from behind the 11th green. McIlroy stiffed an iron shot on 12, then holed an 11-footer for birdie on the next hole. He made back-to-back bogeys on 14 and 15, but holed a 9-footer for par on 16 before birdieing the last two holes.
“He played great golf today, pretty much mistake-free. He was impressive to watch. He put it in the fairway a lot, hit a lot of greens,” Koepka said. “And even his short game, the up-and-down he made on 11, that was pretty tasty right there. And then the way he finished it off right there was very impressive.”
Rory McIlroy's news conference after winning the TOUR Championship
McIlroy had returned the favor from the FedEx St. Jude Invitational. Beating Brooks just weeks after the beat-down in Memphis is part of a bigger theme to this season. McIlroy also is proud that he ranked 10th in bounce-back, the rate at which a player follows a bogey with a birdie. During his earlier days, McIlroy’s shoulders would slump shortly after making some bogeys. He is steelier now.
“If you look at my bounce-back stat this year, it’s way up there, and I think that’s a good indication of where my mind and my attitude is while I’m out there playing,” he said.
McIlroy now has 17 PGA TOUR wins. All have come since 2010, making him the unquestionable Player of the Decade. He's seeking more wins in the next decade, but is driven by another benchmark.
“The Holy Grail is three,” he said. He was referring to 3.0 Strokes Gained per round. Woods is the only player who’s done that.
“I'm not going to stop until I get to three because Tiger has done that multiple seasons, and when you get to three strokes gained, you're just in another league,” McIlroy said. “That’s what I strive towards.”
The FedExCup was the end of McIlroy’s most consistent season. And it may just be the beginning of another act in his career.