Rory McIlroy looks ready to finally clinch that elusive green jacket after he put his Sunday heartbreak behind him with a St Patrick's Day win in The Players Championship at Sawgrass.
After nine failures to win in the final group over the last 13 months (and just one win from 14 when lying first or second through 54 holes over the last three years), the Holywood talent proved to be a class apart in the penultimate group yesterday.
Not only did he card a two-under 70 to win by a shot from veteran Jim Furyk on 16-under par, but he also gathered more momentum for a tilt at his fifth Major win at the Masters in three weeks’ time — a victory that would make him just the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam.
"It's very special," McIlroy said, explaining that his recent close calls have been building blocks towards making the next ten years as successful as his first decade.
"Even though I have had all those close calls this year, they didn't mean anything. If anything, they were good for me.
"I think all those experiences led me to this point and ultimately they were good for me because it got me over the line today."
As for the career Grand Slam bid, he admitted yesterday’s win in the so-called fifth major was a huge stepping stone towards becoming just the sixth man to win all four majors.
"If I hadn't won today I'd have said I don't need a win going to Augusta, but it is very nice to get a win, especially doing it on this golf course — a golf course that will play a little bit similar to Augusta in a few weeks,” said McIlroy, who joins Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus in a select group to win 15 PGA Tour events and four majors before the age of 30.
"I can take a lot from this. It has taken me a few weeks to get to this point, but I feel like I am playing some of the best golf of my life right now and I just need to keep going with it and keep doing the same things."
Not only did he keep his patience after a needless double-bogey six at the fourth — he went for the green from heavy rough and came up short in the water — he responded coolly to almost every move on a packed leaderboard to claim his 15th PGA Tour win, a cheque for $2.25 million and a move to fourth in the world and first in the FedExCup standings.
One behind Jon Rahm starting out, he was still two shots behind the Spaniard with eight holes to go but brilliantly birdied the par-five ninth, and unlike previous close calls this year, he went on to birdie the 11th, then made a vital 12 footer for birdie at the driveable 12th to nip in front.
As Rahm faded, a splashdown at the 11th dampening his confidence as he eventually finish tied 12th after a 76, England's Eddie Pepperell and Colombia's Jhonattan Vegas set the target at 14-under with superb 66s before being overtaken by the evergreen Furyk (48), who birdied the last from three feet to 15 under with a 67.
While McIlroy failed to get up and down for par from sand at the 14th to find himself one behind Furyk, he cut a 181-yard six-iron out of a fairway bunker, around trees to 13 feet at the 15th, fist-pumping as the putt dropped sweetly into the hole.
"The birdie on 12 was huge," he said. "But to get that birdie on 15 after the dropped shot on 14 was massive."
It was a shot that drew the admiration of caddie Harry Diamond, but McIlroy still had work to do.
He put one hand on the trophy by reducing the par-five 16th to a 347-yard drive, a 178-yard nine-iron and two putts from 20 feet to move ahead, then parred the last two holes with great aplomb, hitting the 17th with ease before bombing his tee shot down the middle at the 18th.
"I knew 16 was a good chance and then to hit three good shots when I needed them on the last two holes, that gives me a lot of confidence going forward," he said.
"It's a great start to the season and a massive win and the way I played those last few holes gives me so much confidence going forward."
He added: "This has probably one of the best starts to the year of my career. I have had close calls and a few chances to win. But I think all of those close calls helped stay patient today.
"I double-bogeyed the fourth and didn't get upset. I came back and played some really good golf down the stretch.
"It means everything. This is one of the tournaments I desperately wanted to put on my CV."
He added: "I have been trying to stay as patient as possible and had a nice little chat with Denis Pugh (Francesco Molinari's coach) earlier in the week.
”He said, 'It seems like you are waiting for Christmas and you know Christmas is going to come. You just have to stay patient.' You know it's going to come around at some point.
"I played great over the weekend. Even though I was two over through two yesterday and two over through four today, I didn't force the issue. I stayed patient and knew I had all those chances coming up.
"I feel like the last few weeks, it took all those experiences to get to this point and finally I was able to get over the line."
Seamus Power (32) closed with a 69 to finish tied for 35th on five-under after a memorable debut that saw him ace the 155-yard third in the third round.
He also earned $60,313 and a badly-needed jump to 180th in the FedExCup points list after nine missed cuts in his previous 11 starts this year.
McIlroy tops the FedExCup standings after starting the year T4, T5, T4, 2nd, T6, 1st. He’s played 24 rounds of golf in 80 under par.
His failure to turn great weeks into wins was becoming a trend with his Sunday performances far from his best.
But while he said he didn’t listen to the “noise”, he was aware of what was being said in the media and on television, he heard enough.
Asked how he’d handle the inevitable hype heading to Augusta National, he said: “Just keep doing the same thing. I feel like I've managed the first six weeks or six tournaments of the year very well, even with some noise around me, whether it is, he can't close, he can't play on Sundays, blah, blah, blah.
“I've just got to do my thing, and if I go and I concentrate on me, control what I can do, good golf and good attitude takes care of the rest. And if I go to Augusta with a similar golf game to what I have now and the attitude I've shown over the first few weeks of the year, I think I'll have a great chance.
On the European Tour, Michael Hoey closed with a three-under 68 to tie for 17th on seven-under alongside Ardglass' Cormac Sharvin, who shot a one-over 72, in the Magical Kenya Open in Nairobi.
Both men picked up €13,310, but the €183,330 top prize went to Italian rookie Guido Migliozzi, who closed with a 69 to win his maiden title by one stroke from Spain's Arnaus and South Africans Louis de Jager and Justin Harding on 16-under par.
On the Symetra Tour, Leona Maguire finished fifth in the Florida's Natural Charity Classic, closing with a one-under 71 to finish four strokes outside a sudden-death playoff on nine-under-par as Malaysia’s Kelly Tan beat American Demi Runa with a birdie at the first extra hole. Scores
It was a mixed final round for the Slieve Russell star, who mixed three birdies with three bogeys in her first eight holes before picking up a late birdie two at the 17th.
As a result, she’s ranked 12th in the Volvik Race for the Card standings, just over $400 outside the top 10 who will be awarded LPGA Tour cards at the end of the season.
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