His best swing was followed by his biggest drive, both setting up birdies, and from there Rory McIlroy knew how to finish.
Suddenly staked to a one-shot lead, McIlroy had a 125-yard walk along the water to the 17th hole to face an island that never looks smaller than on Sunday at The Players Championship, followed by the toughest hole on the TPC Sawgrass with water down the entire left side.
“Just make three more good swings … and this thing is yours,” McIlroy kept telling himself.
He delivered in a major way to win the next best thing to major.
McIlroy made two late birdies to regain the lead, was at his best when the pressure was the highest, and he closed with a 2-under 70 for a one-shot victory over Jim Furyk in his 10th appearance at The Players Championship.
“To step up and make those three good swings, it’s very satisfying knowing that it’s in there when it needs to be,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy could not afford a mistake over the final hour because of Furyk, the 48-year-old former Ryder Cup captain who nearly pulled off a stunner. Furyk, one of the last players to qualify for the strongest field in golf, capped off a 67 with a 7-iron into the 18th so good that he started walking when he hit it. The ball plopped down 3 feet from the hole for a birdie to take the lead.
But not for long.
Coming off a careless bogey on the 14th, McIlroy thought he was in trouble when his tee shot went well to the right toward a clump of native grass. He was lucky it came down into the bunker, and from there he drilled a 6-iron from 180 yards.
“Some golf shot there,” Harry Diamond, his caddie and best friend, said as the ball was in the air.
McIlroy called it “the best shot of the day, by far,” and it settled 15 feet behind the hole for a birdie to tie. Then, he blasted a 347-yard drive — the longest of the day on the par-5 16th — into a good lie in the rough that left him a 9-iron to 20 feet for a two-putt birdie and the lead.
Most important, he found dry land on the 17th with a 9-iron, and relied on a memory from 10 years ago in Hong Kong — pick a target and swing hard — to hammer a tee shot down the 18th fairway to set up the win.
He finished at 16-under 272 and earned $2.25 million, to date the biggest winner’s check in golf.
The timing was ideal. McIlroy had not finished worse than a tie for sixth in his five previous starts this year — three of them playing in the final group — with no trophy to show for it. And one month away is the Masters, the final piece for McIlroy to get the career Grand Slam.
It wasn’t easy. Eight players had at least a share of the lead at some point, and a dozen players were separated by two shots at various times.
“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. “I guess that was the hardest thing was just getting yourself to the point mentally where you say, ‘Well, why not me? This is my tournament. I’m going to finish it off.'”
Furyk didn’t know he was in The Players until one week ago, and he was on the verge of winning until McIlroy came through in the end. Furyk started the back nine with two birdies to get in the mix and finished strong. His only regret was a 3-foot par putt on the 15th.
Even so, it showed he has plenty of game left after devoting two years as Ryder Cup captain. The runner-up finish moves him high enough in the world ranking (No. 57) to qualify for the Match Play in two weeks.
“A shot here, a shot there, maybe could have been a little different,” Furyk said. “But ultimately, left it all out there. It was also nice to get in contention, to get under the heat, to have to hit shots under a lot of pressure, and then to respond well to that and hit some good golf shots. It’ll be a confidence boost going forward.
Some of the most entertaining moments came from everyone else.
Eddie Pepperell of England, in his Sawgrass debut, ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch to briefly share the lead, none bigger than a putt from just inside 50 feet on the 17th. One group later, Jhonattan Vegas holed a putt from the bottom left to the top right pin position, just under 70 feet, the longest putt made on the island green since the PGA Tour had lasers to measure them. That gave him a share of the lead, too.
“Magic,” Vegas said. “If I tried it a thousand times I wouldn’t even come close to making it.”
Both shot 66 and tied for third.
Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood lost their way early, and then late.
Rahm, who had a one-shot lead, started with three bogeys in four holes and recovered until a curious decision. Tied for the lead, he was 220 yards away in a bunker, partially blocked by trees on the par-5 11, when he went for the green and hit into the water, making bogey. He was still in the game until failing to birdie the 16th and hitting into the water on the 17th. Rahm shot 76.
Fleetwood opened with a three-putt bogey and made all pars until hitting into the water on the 11th for bogey. He made eagle on the 16th to have a fleeting chance until coming up short of the island. He shot 73 and tied for fifth with Brandt Snedeker (69) and Dustin Johnson (69).