Sunday night at Atlanta’s East Lake Country Club felt like a recoronation.
It wasn’t a major, no. We rarely remember who wins these Tour Championships unless we decide to remember them (see: last year’s Tiger Woods, versus 2014’s Billy Horschel). It’s viewed as gimmicky by many around the sport, a man-made creation intended to keep golf relevant deep into the calendar year, when college football is starting up and baseball’s pennant races near their climaxes.
But the final round of this year’s Tour Championship did feel like the perfect tableau. We had young studs like Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas in the hunt. We had Brooks Koepka, he of near-Tiger levels of dominance, closing in on the lead. We had a $15 million prize on the line, the most lucrative purse in golf.
And we had Rory McIlroy, once king of the sport, now relegated to something great but not legendary. He was searching to have his crown returned to his head, in the heat of late August in Georgia .
It was a season finale seemingly born from Tour commisioner Jay Monahan’s personal dreamscape, the exact kind of leaderboard the sport has yearned for so often since Tiger’s fall from grace. For nearly a decade the sport has been looking for a monolith like Brooks Koepka, and for a rivalry like Brooks vs Rory. And on Sunday they had it, in the year’s final event.
What played out on the greens and fairways of East Lake was a tour de force for a generational player in McIlroy who, despite going without a major victory for the fifth straight season, believes he played the most consistent golf of his life this year. Perhaps surprisingly, the statistics agree. He led the Tour in strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained tee-to-green, total strokes gained and scoring average.
On Thursday, McIlroy began the tournament five shots back of Thomas — a result of the event’s new staggered scoring system — and won by four strokes over Shauffele. His 13-under 267 bested the Vader-esque Koepka, the world’s №1 player, who had knocked McIlroy off in the final round one month ago at the World Golf Championship event in Memphis. And he avenged last year’s disappearing act in the final round of the Tour Championship, when the crowd rushed the 18th green to see Tiger pen a legendary, where-were-you-when comeback story, leaving McIlroy as a mere bystander to history.
This time, though, Rory was the rock star, the prodigal son, the king reclaiming his throne. A pulsing crowd again surrounded East Lake’s 18th green, this time cheering “Ro-ry! Ro-ry! Ro-ry!” He took off his hat, ran his hands through his hair, his face emoting both exhaustion and contentedness. On Sunday, as his rivals and competitors clawed at the perfectly manicured East Atlanta lawn that Bobby Jones once called home, McIlroy took his medicine and swallowed his own hiccups and finished the damn thing to claim the biggest payout in the history of the sport.
“I’ve said multiple times, he’s the most fun to watch when he’s playing well,” Koepka said afterward. “He hits it so good, he putts it really well and when he’s on, man, he’s tough to beat.”
Tough to beat, indeed. Impossible, even.
McIlroy’s average drive for the week was 314 yards. That includes the holes he didn’t use driver. On Sunday at the 401-yard, par-4 12th hole, he hit a 285-yard 3-wood, then followed with an approach to three feet for a tap-in birdie. On the next hole, holding a two-shot lead over Schauffele, he unloaded a 328-yard drive down the centre of the fairway, then dropped a sand wedge to within 12 feet. No area of McIlroy’s game has improved quite like his putting, and showing the complete package, he rolled in the birdie putt to move to 18-under par.
While bogeys followed at holes 14 and 15, none of his pursuers could take advantage. Schauffele was on his way to shooting even par on the back nine while Koepka sprayed drives across the course and failed to make up ground. Thomas was too far back to be a real threat.
McIlroy? He didn’t crumble under the pressure. The air stood still as he lined up an 8-foot left-to-right putt at the par-4 16th to avoid a third straight bogey. That could have been the turning point not just of the round, and not just of his season, but of his future. Every shot feels different when $15 million is on the line. Every shot feels different when your legacy is being questioned. He exhaled and pumped a fist as the ball found the middle of the cup, putting him two shots up on Schauffele. Still relieved later, McIlroy said, “I really just wanted to stop the bleeding.”
This is where the drama was supposed to come. Instead, it was just more brilliance from McIlroy. Only two players from Sunday’s final four pairings birdied 17: McIlroy and Koepka. McIlroy split the fairway with a 298-yard 3-wood, leaving 144 to the green. It was the type of shot that explained why his total strokes gained on the field off-the-tee for the week was 5.313. Left with a 15-footer for birdie, McIlroy jammed it in the back of the cup. Game, set and match.
It wasn’t enough for McIlroy to win the FedEx Cup. He also wanted to claim the lowest overall score, regardless of the staggered scoring system. He said afterward he was “playing a little tournament inside my head” and doing the math as he went, calculating everyone else’s actual score in relation to par.
That’s where his greatness was on Sunday. He was only competing against himself.
So with a three-shot lead and $15 million essentially hanging out of his back pocket, McIlroy took driver on 18 and unleashed a 337-yard drive, leaving 225 to the pin. His second shot found the sand, but it didn’t matter.
Ropes were dropped along the side of the fairway as McIlroy approached the green. A mob sprinted forward, phones held high, jockeying for position 50 yards in front of the green, to witness the recoronation of one of the game’s brightest stars.
McIlroy matched Jordan Spieth’s 2015 tally for the largest margin of victory in the Tour Championship since Woods lapped the field by eight shots in 2007. The only difference is that McIlroy began the week trailing by five.
In the end, 2019 forged a bigger, better version of a player who, at 30, is already a lock for the Hall of Fame and still a threat to win nine or 10 major titles. McIlroy has four and needs a win at the Masters to become the sixth player to complete the modern career grand slam. Given what we just witnessed, next year he should be expected to break his drought in the majors, which dates to the 2014 PGA Championship. He’s playing the best golf of his life heading into 2020.
McIlroy and Koepka have become untouchable this season. No golf course can contain their otherworldly talent, and you’d be safe to bet on them against the field. On Sunday, McIlroy showed the kind of closing speed it takes to win against a ruthlessly competitive contingent of the game’s elite players.
“I realized if I want to become the dominant player in the world again, I need to be more like that,” McIlroy said.
On Sunday, McIlroy did play just like that — like a man ready to cement his place on golf’s Mount Rushmore, alongside Woods and Nicklaus and Palmer.
As it turns out, Sunday wasn’t the end of 2019. It was the start of something new.