Rory McIlroy made two late birdies amid the wild theatrics of Sunday at The Players Championship and closed with a 2-under 70 to win the next best thing to a major.
It required a major performance down the scary stretch at the TPC Sawgrass.
McIlroy could not afford to make a mistake over the final hour because of Jim Furyk, the 48-year-old former Ryder Cup captain who nearly pulled off a stunner. Furyk, one of the last players to get in the strongest field in golf, capped off a 67 with a shot so good into the 18th that he started walking when he hit it. It plopped down 3 feet from the hole for a birdie to take the lead.
But not for long.
McIlroy, one of eight players to have at least a share of the lead in the final round, was coming off a bogey on the 14th to fall behind and was in trouble with a tee shot that found a bunker right of the fairway. He responded with his best shot of the day to 15 feet for birdie.
Then, McIlroy hit the longest drive of the round on the par-5 16th, leaving him a 9-iron from a good lie in the rough to set up a two-shot birdie and the lead.
Most important, he found dry land on the par-3 17th, the island green that never looks smaller than on Sunday at The Players.
He was solid to the end on a chilly, cloudy day and finished at 16-under 272 to win The Players on his 10th try.
It might even set up the 29-year-old from Northern Ireland for the Masters next month, the only major he lacks for the career Grand Slam.
“This is probably the deepest field of the year, with so much on the line,” McIlroy said. “I’m thankful it was my turn this week.”
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 to qualifying 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.
|1||R. McIlroy||-2||F [F]||-16|
|2||J. Furyk||-5||F [F]||-15|
|T3||E. Pepperell||-6||F [F]||-14|
|T3||J. Vegas||-6||F [F]||-14|
|T5||T. Fleetwood||+1||F [F]||-13|
|T5||D. Johnson||-3||F [F]||-13|
|T5||B. Snedeker||-3||F [F]||-13|
|T8||J. Rose||-4||F [F]||-12|
|T8||B. Harman||-2||F [F]||-12|
|T8||H. Matsuyama||-5||F [F]||-12|
|T8||J. Day||E||F [F]||-12|
|T12||J. Rahm||+4||F [F]||-11|
|T12||A. Ancer||E||F [F]||-11|
|T12||J. Dahmen||-2||F [F]||-11|
|T12||A. Scott||-2||F [F]||-11|
|T16||O. Schniederjans||E||F [F]||-10|
|T16||N. Taylor||-5||F [F]||-10|
|T16||K. Bradley||E||F [F]||-10|
|T16||W. Simpson||-4||F [F]||-10|
|T20||B. DeChambeau||-1||F [F]||-9|
|T20||R. Moore||-3||F [F]||-9|
|T22||S. García||-5||F [F]||-8|
|T22||J. T. Poston||-2||F [F]||-8|
|T22||K. Kisner||+1||F [F]||-8|
|T22||T. Finau||E||F [F]||-8|
|T26||B. An||-1||F [F]||-7|
|T26||B. Horschel||-3||F [F]||-7|
|T26||M. Kuchar||-2||F [F]||-7|
|T26||E. Grillo||-6||F [F]||-7|
|T30||M. Wallace||-2||F [F]||-6|
|T30||T. Hoge||E||F [F]||-6|
|T30||G. Woodland||-4||F [F]||-6|
|T30||T. Woods||-3||F [F]||-6|
|T30||L. Bjerregaard||E||F [F]||-6|
|T35||C. Howell III||-3||F [F]||-5|
|T35||J. Thomas||-2||F [F]||-5|
|T35||B. Garnett||-2||F [F]||-5|
|T35||S. Power||-3||F [F]||-5|
|T35||R. Sabbatini||E||F [F]||-5|
|T35||R. Knox||E||F [F]||-5|
|T41||C. Conners||+2||F [F]||-4|
|T41||T. Olesen||-3||F [F]||-4|
|T41||V. Taylor||+4||F [F]||-4|
|T41||M. Trainer||-2||F [F]||-4|
|T41||M. Fitzpatrick||-1||F [F]||-4|
|T41||D. McCarthy||-1||F [F]||-4|
|T47||K. Mitchell||+2||F [F]||-3|
|T47||K. Kraft||-1||F [F]||-3|
|T47||J. Kokrak||-2||F [F]||-3|
|T47||R. Werenski||+2||F [F]||-3|
|T47||A. Landry||-1||F [F]||-3|
|T47||P. Reed||+6||F [F]||-3|
|T47||R. Fowler||+4||F [F]||-3|
|T47||B. Cauley||-2||F [F]||-3|
|T47||S. Kang||E||F [F]||-3|
|T56||L. Oosthuizen||-2||F [F]||-2|
|T56||C. Kirk||-1||F [F]||-2|
|T56||B. Gay||+3||F [F]||-2|
|T56||S. Piercy||E||F [F]||-2|
|T56||C. Smith||-1||F [F]||-2|
|T56||B. Watson||+1||F [F]||-2|
|T56||I. Poulter||+4||F [F]||-2|
|T56||L. List||+2||F [F]||-2|
|T56||S. Kim||+1||F [F]||-2|
|T56||F. Molinari||E||F [F]||-2|
|T56||B. Koepka||-2||F [F]||-2|
|T67||S. Langley||-1||F [F]||-1|
|T67||J. Walker||-1||F [F]||-1|
|T67||D. Berger||+2||F [F]||-1|
|70||M. Thompson||+4||F [F]||E|
|71||M. Kaymer||+6||F [F]||+3|
|T72||B. Grace||+5||F [F]||+4|
|T72||C.T. Pan||+4||F [F]||+4|
|Cut||J. B. Holmes||–||–||+1|
|Cut||T. Potter, Jr.||–||–||+4|
|Cut||H. Varner III||–||–||+6|
|WD||J. J. Spaun||–||–||+4|
Some of the most entertaining moments came from everyone else.
Eddie Pepperell of England, in his debut on the Players Stadium Course, 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.
But it wasn’t the best. 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, but I’m pretty happy that it happened today.”
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 kept his cool until one curious decision. Tied for the lead, he was in a bunker, 220 yards away, partially blocked by trees on the par-5 11th when he decided to go for the green. It never had a chance, finding the water and leading to a bogey.
Rahm was still in the game until he failed to birdie the 16th, and then put his tee shot in the water on the 17th. He closed with a 76 and tied for 12th.
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).
McIlroy emerged as the winner, his 15th on the PGA Tour and 23rd in his career worldwide. He earned $2.25 million and moved to the top of the FedEx Cup standings, but this was about seeing the results in a year that began well and has been getting better.
In six tournaments this year, McIlroy has not finished worse than sixth.
He has practiced patience the last three months, and he needed it after hitting into the water at No. 4 and making double bogey.
“I almost liked today because it was tough,” McIlroy said. “I knew guys weren’t going to get away from us. I knew there was some chances coming up. I stayed patient. Anytime I looked at a leaderboard, I was pleasantly surprised because I hadn’t fallen two, three, four shots behind.”
Tiger Woods hit 12 of 14 fairways, made a 30-foot putt for birdie and holed out for par from a greenside bunker in the final round at The Players Championship.
Even though he finished in the middle of the pack, Woods liked the state of his game in preparation for the Masters.
“It’s right on track,” Woods said after shooting a 3-under 69 on Sunday. “I’m able to shape the golf ball both ways, which I’m going to need there. Just need a few more putts to go in, but that’s about it.”
Woods made four birdies in wet conditions and had decent looks at a few more, but failed to make many mid-length putts. Still, his 26 putts in the final round marked the first time he needed fewer than 30 this week on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
“I felt like I was playing well,” he said. “My score didn’t really indicate that going into the final day, but I was hitting the golf ball well. I’m frustrated at lipping more putts out than I think I have in a very long time. Just one of those weeks where just nothing really got rolling enough to get me going.”
Woods’ lone blunder _ his only score worse than bogey all week _ was a quadruple-bogey 7 at the famed par-3 17th in the second round. Woods put two balls in the water en route to matching his worst score on any par 3 in 24 years on the PGA Tour.
Had he not dropped four shots at the island green Friday, Woods could have been in the mix Sunday.
Regardless, he found more good than bad in his final stroke-play event before Augusta National (April 11-14). His last tuneup for the Masters will be the Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas, in two weeks, where he is guaranteed at least three rounds.
“I’m excited the way I drove it,” he said. “I drove the ball well this week. I drove it not quite as long on the weekend with a little bit cooler temperatures, but I was driving it pretty straight and I was able to shape the golf ball both ways with all three of my woods, which was good to see.”
Woods said he had no issues with his neck. He withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week with what he described as a strain. It was the first time the 43-year-old Woods withdrew from a tournament in two years, shortly before his fourth back surgery to fuse his lower spine.
He used the week off to get his body right.
“I needed that,” he said. “I needed to get that organized. If my back gets tight, it’s going to go up the chain and so I got to start at ground zero and get my lower back moving properly and get everything, the firing sequence good, and then after that the rest of the chain will take care of itself.
“I think that it was the right decision to make considering that I have April right around the corner.”
Woods was at his best on the front nine. His bunker shot at the par-3 third was perfect and trickled in to save par. His approach shot in a stiff wind at No. 4 left him with a 4-footer for birdie. His long-range putt at the seventh riled up the morning crowd.
His round would have been better had he not barely missed a 15-footer at No. 14. He also missed an opportunity by hitting into the water at the par-5 16th and then needing a 15-footer to save par.
“I was close,” Woods said. “I know the score doesn’t really indicate that, but this is one of the golf courses that _ there’s some weird spots here. It was fun to play but … this is probably the most stressful golf course you ever play when there’s wind out here.
“The wind swirls and you have fairways that are tough to hit and then you have the greens that are tough to hit and put it in the right sections. And if you don’t, you’re going to be standing on your head hitting some shots. So only had a few of those this week, so all in all it was a solid week.”
Jon Rahm can’t think of a shot he missed Saturday in his round of 8-under 64 that took him from five shots behind to one shot ahead of Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood in The Players Championship.
The one bogey he made stood out for two reasons.
It was nearly perfect, of course, a sand wedge into No. 6 that tracked the flag and landed next to the pin, except that it took a hard bounce and rolled over the back of the green. And his reaction to a potential birdie turning into bogey spoke to the calm Rahm feels, even on a course designed to fray nerves.
There was no visible frustration, only more great golf.
“I’ve been working so hard on the mental aspect of my game, trying to keep myself in check a little more,” said Rahm, the 24-year-old Spaniard so full of passion. “And I think that has been the key this week. I’ve been so balanced _ nothing like I used to be, nothing like before. I’ve been really proud of how I’ve been handling myself.
“And hopefully tomorrow, it shows how different it has been.”
Rahm surged ahead with a 30 on the back nine of the TPC Sawgrass, sparked by a 4-iron into 3 feet for eagle and a wedge that stopped 2 feet behind the hole to a front pin on the par-3 17th for a tap-in birdie.
He was at 15-under 201, enough for his first 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour, enough to keep McIlroy and Fleetwood from catching him.
“Didn’t miss many shots out there,” Rahm said. “Really, really confident with my irons. Every time I stepped up, I felt like I was going to hit a good shot.”
Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., is at 6 under and Nick Taylor of Abbotsford, B.C., is at 5 under.
McIlroy and Fleetwood struggled from the start and both eventually recovered, McIlroy sooner than Fleetwood, both finishing with a 70 that left them in excellent shape to capture the PGA Tour’s biggest event.
McIlroy muffed a chip and had to scramble for bogey on the opening hole, hit a chip over the green on the par-5 second hole and turned potential birdie into bogey, and that was as bad as it got. He still was under par at the turn by running off three birdies, including a 4-iron to a foot on the hardest par 3 on the course at No. 8.
But after a two-putt birdie on the par-5 11th, McIlroy’s chances dried up. Even on the par-5 16th, he tried a low runner out of the pine trees and it came out so hot that it ran through the green and into the water.
Even so, he was bogey-free over the last 16 holes and shot 70. And he can at least avoid questions about winning from the final group, something McIlroy hasn’t done in his last nine occasions dating to the start of 2018.
“I just need to hit fairways and greens. If I can do that, and take the opportunities I give myself, hopefully I can turn tomorrow into the best Sunday of the year so far,” McIlroy said.
Fleetwood missed a 30-inch putt on the opening hole and took double bogey, and he fell three shots behind through seven holes. He holed a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 8 after McIlroy tapped in for his birdie, and then picked up four birdies where they were available.
“Didn’t have my swing today like I’ve had for the first two days, and really struggled with that early on,” Fleetwood said. “The good thing about it was how good I was mentally, the character I showed. I was stuck in there on one of the toughest golf courses we play and managed to get an under par round out of it when I didn’t really feel comfortable all day.”
Jason Day had a 68 and was three shots behind.
Tiger Woods was five shots better on the par-3 17th _ a quadruple bogey on Friday, a 2-foot birdie putt on Saturday _ but still started so slowly that even a late run of birdies was only good for a 72. He was 12 shots behind in his last stroke-play event before the Masters.
Five players were within five shots of Rahm, the deficit the Spaniard made up on Saturday. That group included Brandt Snedeker (65) and Keegan Bradley (68), and Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world who played the par 5s at even and still shot a 69.
Rahm, who already has six worldwide victories in just short of three years as a pro, was still lagging behind when he made the turn, and then quickly moved to the top. After a short birdie on the 10th, he hit 4-iron from 243 yards to 3 feet on a front left pin at the par-5 11th for an eagle. He hit the right shot on the par-3 13th, with the pin below a ridge near the water, into 3 feet for another birdie.
By the end of the day, his 64 was about as high as it could have been. He two-putted from just inside 15 feet for a birdie on the 16th, and he had another birdie chance from about that range on the 18th that would have tied the course record.
No matter. He was in the lead, facing a Sunday pairing with Fleetwood as he goes for the most important win of his young career.