“March Madness” typically refers to college basketball, but after a extraordinarily thrilling Sunday at THE PLAYERS Championship, newly held again in March after a decade in May, the phrase may have to share association with golf.
Dubbed by many – well many associated with the PGA TOUR – as “the fifth major,” this year’s edition at iconic TPC Sawgrass, undoubtedly got a major champion: Rory McIlroy.
A four-time major champion, who famously is just a Masters title short of the career grand slam, notched his 15th career PGA Tour victory in exhilarating fashion, emerging from a pack of roughly a dozen top-quality players in contention to take the much-coveted title by a single stroke over a rejuvenated 48-year-old Jim Furyk.
The 29-year-old McIlroy, the pride of Northern Ireland, perhaps at least mildly appropriate for a tournament concluding on St. Patrick’s Day, had been playing fantastic golf as of late, coming into the week off five consecutive top-six finishes. Such a streak would be considered scorching hot for most, but with the prodigious standard Rory has set in his career, much of the talk around him was criticism for recent struggles closing tournaments.
Playing in the penultimate pairing on Sunday, there were no such issues for Rory, who birdied four holes in a six-hole back-nine stretch on his way to a 2-under 70, reaching 16-under-par for the week.
It may not have been the lowest Sunday round of his 23 career professional victories worldwide, but with the duo of Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood collapsing in the group after him, it was more than enough to pull off his biggest win in years.
Last year’s PLAYERS Championship was a rout, as Webb Simpson transmuted a seven-stroke 54-hole lead into a four-shot victory. This year, 11 players finished within four strokes of the lead, a result that engendered significantly more round 4 drama.
A back-and-forth Sunday saw a considerable amount of players hold at least a share of the lead at at least one point, but in the end, the cream rose to the top, with McIlroy’s late surge meaning that the flag of Northern Ireland will be flying at TPC Sawgrass for at least a year.