ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy was safely on the 18th green Sunday afternoon before the galleries began to fill the fairway at East Lake. A year ago, in an unbridled and impromptu act of celebration, the crowds had swarmed Tiger Woods on his way to an emotional victory at the TOUR Championship.
This time, it was more restrained. A bit more refined. A bit more orderly.
This time, the crowds weren’t celebrating the comeback of a legend, but the continuing greatness of a superstar in his prime.
This time, it was much more enjoyable for McIlroy, who may have been the only person to leave East Lake a year ago without wearing a smile. He played with Tiger that day but became an afterthought, shooting a 4-over 74 and failing to, in his words, “take the fight to Tiger.”
This time, paired with the world’s top-ranked player in Brooks Koepka, McIlroy brought the fight. Starting the final round one stroke behind, McIlroy kept delivering one haymaker after haymaker, pounding drives in the fairway, making clutch putts, keeping the pressure on. Eventually, it was Koepka who flinched with three consecutive bogeys on the back nine.
And this time, it was McIlroy and his caddie, Harry Diamond, who could enjoy the moment on 18 instead of desperately trying to avoid the Tiger frenzy. “It's not quite as scary a walk as it was last year,” McIlroy told his good friend as they walked up the fairway.
McIlroy, ending his day with two birdies, posted a 2-under 68 to win by four shots over Xander Schauffele, and five over Koepka and Justin Thomas. As a result, McIlroy claimed the second FedExCup of his career, joining Tiger as the only two-time winners.
Also as a result, McIlroy posted the lowest score of the week, regardless of the new Starting Strokes format. He started the week at 5 under, finished at 18 under, meaning he was 13 under without the advantage. That’s one stroke better than his winning total in 2016.
See, it all worked out.
Oh, and he won the $15 million bonus, which is $5 million more than he won three years ago when he bested Ryan Moore and Kevin Kisner in a playoff to win his first FedExCup title. McIlroy has said the money is secondary to him. “Didn’t think about it once,” he said of golf’s biggest prize. He just wanted the title, wanted to overtake Schauffele as Strokes Gained leader, and wanted to climb to second in the world behind Koepka.
Done, done and done.
- Extended Highlights
Rory McIlroy's Round 4 highlights from TOUR Championship
“Really cool to put my name on this trophy for a second time,” McIlroy said. “Any time you can do something that only Tiger has done, you’re doing something right.”
Last year’s final round at East Lake obviously stung. So did the final round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational a month ago. McIlroy led by one over Koepka entering Sunday, but shot a 71 to Koepka’s 65, fueling the opinion that Koepka had his number.
Instead, it only fueled McIlroy. After finishing up their third rounds Sunday morning after play was suspended the day before due to a lightning strike that injured six fans, McIlroy found himself one shot behind Koepka and in the final twosome.
“Once I saw I was in the final group with Brooks, it just took me back to Memphis a few weeks ago,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I learned a few lessons that day. … I wanted to right some of the wrongs that I made that Sunday in Memphis.”
And what did McIlroy learn?
“Sometimes I try to treat Sundays the same as a Thursday or Friday, and they’re not. I go into them maybe a little too relaxed. … 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.
“I guess that’s the ultimate compliment I can give Brooks is today I wanted to be a little bit more like him.”
Sunday was the eighth round McIlroy and Koepka have been paired in the last five weeks on TOUR. McIlroy has shot the lower round four times and they’ve tied once.
“His game is in great form right now,” Koepka said. “It’s really impressive to watch. Like I’ve said multiple times, he’s the most fun to watch when he’s playing well. He hits it so good, he putts it really well, and when he’s on, man, he’s tough to beat.”
Koepka wasn’t at his best in the final round, missing fairways (5 of 14) and short putts (two inside 5 feet). Still …
“I don’t think I was going to beat Rory today, even if I had it,” Koepka admitted.
This week, voting among the PGA TOUR pros will begin for this year’s Player of the Year. The two candidates with arguably the best credentials are Koepka (last year’s winner) and McIlroy.
Koepka has three wins, including a major and a World Golf Championships event, and has top-4 finishes in every major. McIlroy won THE PLAYERS Championship, the RBC Canadian Open, and the FedExCup. In his 19 starts, he has 14 top-10 finishes this season, most on TOUR, and he led the TOUR in Strokes Gained.
Going into the TOUR Championship, McIlroy was asked what a win would mean for his Player of the Year chances. He reeled off his accomplishments while wondering if the award should honor a few great weeks or an entire year.
“I feel like I've been very consistent,” he said. Then he caught himself. “It's like I'm sitting up here trying to make an argument for myself to win. But if that were the case and I wasn't to win, I would understand why Brooks would.”
Said Justin Thomas, the 2017 Player of the Year winner: “I think it just depends on how everybody views the voting. Consistently, Rory has outplayed Brooks by a mile in how he’s done the entire year. It’s unbelievable how he’s played.
“But the most important thing is wins and playing great in the big events, and nobody has done that better than Brooks.”
Consider it another showdown between Koepka and McIlroy. We’ve seen it in Memphis, in the FedExCup Playoffs, and we saw it Sunday at East Lake. It’s a back-and-forth we’ll likely see for the next decade.
“He most likely will win the Player of the Year, but he didn’t win the FedExCup,” McIlroy said. “I know it’s going to sting him for a bit … I definitely expect more Sundays like that between the both of us in the future.”
On this Sunday at East Lake, it was McIlroy’s walk to enjoy. This time, the fans chanted his name. This time, he got to enjoy the moment. It’s a wonderful way to finish a season.
Rory McIlroy's interview after winning the TOUR Championship