“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.
FINAL TOP-10 FINISHERS
Pos-Player-Score (Final Rd)
1. Rory McIlroy -16 (-2)
2. Jim Furyk -15 (-5)
3. Eddie Pepperell -14 (-6)
3. Jhonattan Vegas -14 (-6)
5. Dustin Johnson -13 (-3)
5. Brandt Snedeker -13 (-3)
5. Tommy Fleetwood -13 (+1)
8. Hideki Matsuyama -12 (-5)
8. Justin Rose -12 (-4)
8. Brian Harman -12 (-2)
8. Jason Day -12 (E)
12. Adam Scott, Jon Rahm -11
16. Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley -10
20. Bryson DeChambeau -9
22. Sergio Garcia, Tony Finau -8
26. Billy Horschel, Matt Kuchar -7
30. Gary Woodland, Tiger Woods -6
35. Charles Howell III, Justin Thomas -5
47. Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed -3
56. Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Bubba Watson, Ian Poulter -2
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HOW RORY MCILROY WON THE PLAYERS
As he has done in seemingly every tournament lately, McIlroy got off to a hot start, shooting rounds of 67 and 65 to establish himself as one of the top contenders after two rounds. A Saturday 70, had him in a tie with Fleetwood for second place, one stroke back of the 23-year-old Spaniard Rahm.
Early on, there was a sense of “here we go again” with Rory, who parred the first three holes before sending his approach on the par-4 4th hole into the water, leading to a double bogey. The bleeding would not last long for him, however, as he offset a bogey on No. 7 with birdies on 6 and 9 to go out in 1-over – not incredible, but good enough to keep him right in the thick of things.
Then, the back nine brought out grade-A Rory. He birdied Nos. 11 and 12 to reach 14-under and hold the lead by himself. A bogey on the par-4 14th was a small step back before he added two additional gains on 15 and 16. Gritty pars on the final two holes kept Rory one-stroke clear of the surprising Jim Furyk, who was attempting to become the tournament’s all-time oldest champion.
McIlroy putted poorly on Sunday, something he may need to iron out before The Masters next month, but the rest of his game was in-check. His 21 birdies for the week was the fifth-best in the field, and he finished second in strokes gained: off-the-tee, while leading the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
RORY’S FINAL STATS
Driving: 305.0 yards (5th)
Fairways: 33/56, 58.9% (49th)
Greens: 58/72, 80.6% (3rd)
Putts: 1.678 (9th)
Scoring: 1 Eagle, 21 Birdies, 44 Pars, 5 Bogeys, 1 Double
WHAT WINNING THE PLAYERS MEANS FOR RORY
Winning is nothing new for Rory, but he’s not done as much of it lately as he once used to. In fact, this was just his second victory in two-plus seasons – over 50 starts, and his first title in over a year, with his last coming at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational – coincidentally (or maybe not), also on St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
On 12 occasions since that Bay Hill ‘W,’ Rory had finished a tournament inside the top-8, without a victory, with many of those coming in events where he reached the final Sunday pairing before stumbling down the stretch. Playing in the second-to-last group with Jason Day may have been exactly what he needed.
With the victory, McIlroy rises from No. 6 in the world rankings to No. 4, and his confidence could be soaring as he makes his fifth attempt at the career grand slam next month at Augusta National. He also rises to the No. 1 position in the current FedExCup standings.
MCILROY’S 2019 PGA TOUR SEASON
Cuts Made: 7
Wins: 1 (The PLAYERS)
Top 10s: 5
Money: $4,580,008 (1st)
Points: 1,198 (1st)
World Rank Before/After: 6th/4th
McIlroy may have left TPC Sawgrass with THE PLAYERS title, but Jim Furyk was the most impressive man in the Sunday field. A successful PGA Tour career had seemed to come to a screeching halt over the past two years, and he was one of the last players to even qualify for this year’s event, thanks mainly to a T9 at the Honda.
The recent American Ryder Cup captain ranks 212th on Tour in driving distance, not unusual given his advanced age – although even young Furyk was never a bomber, but he has been hitting fairways at a career-best rate, and that accuracy was paramount in his surprising runner-up finish. On Sunday, he bounced back from a first hole bogey with an eagle on 2, and then four back-nine birdies led to a 5-under 67, holding the tournament lead until McIlroy’s birdie on 16.
Two players who have a reputation for being at least somewhat streaky vaulted up the leaderboard from 16th into a tie for third after a co-field-low 6-under 66.
Eddie Pepperell put himself on the golf radar when a hot Sunday round at last year’s Open Championship led to a T6 finish, but he now has two notable top-10s on his record.
After playing the first six holes at TPC Sawgrass at 1-over, Pepperell caught fire with four birdies over his next seven holes, and then notching three more consecutively from 15-17, allowing him to briefly hold a co-lead. The affable Brit led the field for the week in strokes gained: around-the-green.
Jhonattan Vegas, a three-time Tour champion, was a bit more steady than Pepperell, finishing off his 66 bogey-free. The 34-year-old from Venezuela also had perhaps the highlight of the tournament, when he holed a putt of nearly 70 feet on the famous 17th hole island green, the longest in event history.
Emiliano Grillo matched the 66, good for a 36-spot Sunday rise up the final leaderboard, into a share of 26th place.
Jon Rahm has been extremely successful in his young career, but his Sunday at THE PLAYERS was not one of his best efforts. Holding a one-stroke lead after 54-holes, Rahm backed up early on Sunday with three bogeys over his first four holes.
He had seemed to steady himself with birdies on Nos. 6 and 8 to re-take the lead, but he stumbled further on the back nine. He effectively ended his chances when he sent his tee shot on the 17th hole into the water, leading to a double-bogey.
His 4-over 76 was his worst round of the week by seven strokes, and he ended up finishing in 12th place.
Rahm’s playing partner, Tommy Fleetwood, was only marginally better. Looking for his first victory on American soil, Fleetwood did not card a birdie until the 12th hole, and even after an eagle on the par-5 16th, he was only able to shoot a 1-over 73, which dropped him into fifth place.
The biggest Sunday drop down the leaderboard came from reigning Masters Champion Patrick Reed. After three consecutive rounds of 69, Reed was nowhere near as steady on Sunday, playing holes 5-10 at 6-over. He finished with a co-field worst 6-over 78, dropping him 35 spots from T12 to T47.
Reed lost more than five strokes to the field on Sunday with terrible putting.
Tiger Woods won THE PLAYERS in 2001 and 2013, placing him just one victory behind Jack Nicklaus for the most in tournament history. For the fourth consecutive round it was a tale of two nines for Tiger, who played the front-nine in a bogey-free 3-under, but played the inward-nine to even-par, finishing with a 3-under 69, good for a share of 30th place.
Encouragingly for Tiger, he hit 12 of 14 fairways on Sunday, but he gave a lot of that advantage up with a poor iron game. For the week, he finished 70th in the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green.
TIGER’S FINAL STATS
Driving: 291.0 yards (28th)
Fairways: 38/56, 67.9% (18th)
Greens: 52/72, 72.2% (12th)
Putts: 1.731 (36th)
Scoring: 18 Birdies, 45 Pars, 8 Bogeys
EXIT QUESTION FOR RORY
You’re already the betting favorite for the Masters. Do you feel like you might have to do anything different to manage the buildup between now and April?
RORY MCILROY: No, just keep doing the same thing. I feel like I’ve managed the first six weeks or six tournaments of the year very well, even with some noise around me, whether it is, he can’t close, he can’t plays on Sundays, blah, blah, blah.
I’ve just got to do my thing, and if I go and I concentrate on me, control what I can do, good golf and good attitude takes care of the rest. And if I go to Augusta with a similar golf game to what I have now and the attitude I’ve shown over the first few weeks of the year, I think I’ll have a great chance.
3 QUESTIONS FOR OTHERS
Is there any concern going to Match Play with the amount of golf you might have to play that week if you make it the whole way to Sunday?
TIGER WOODS: No, I got a week off after that, so no. I’m hoping that I can play all the matches. That would be great, I’m guaranteed to play three instead of — when I played it was only one guaranteed, so that’s kind of nice knowing that I’ll be able to get at least three good rounds in, possibly more if I play well, and that’s basically like a tournament.
Still a good week, right?
EDDIE PEPPERELL: Yeah, of course, of course. It’s a great way for me to leave this little trip because there was a lot of — I could have shot 73, 74 quite easily today and left with not a very nice taste in my mouth, but whatever I finish it’s going to be — well, frankly all I’m here to do is pick up money because I’m not a member.
Money and World Ranking points, but I don’t care about World Ranking points. I like to win money so I can pay for some wine. That’s probably the biggest positive, in a crude way.
But yeah, it is what it is, and great first experience at this place because I obviously hope I’ll be back here, and to have some really nice memories of what’s happened today, obviously coming back will be nice.
Fluff looked like he was really on his game today. Was there any particular moment that you’ll remember and can share with us?
JIM FURYK: You know, he’s pretty amazing. Fluff — how about we just call him 71-year-old Mike Cowan. He’s pretty amazing. He doesn’t change much out there.
I probably don’t look like I change, but I can tell inside what I’m feeling. I can feel my heartbeat. I know when I’m jacked up and excited.
Fluff just — he’s a guy that loves — I’ve always said this: He loves what he does for a living, he likes coming to work, everyone likes Mike, and he never changes, whether I’m shooting 80 or shooting 65, he was the same person on the bag, and you can’t ask for any more than that.
I was so jacked up on 17, I actually got a yardage from the wrong head. There’s two heads over there to the right of the tee and I grabbed the wrong one, and I had them twisted for about 10 seconds, but I went back and forth in circles over there on that tee because he told me I had the wrong head, I had the wrong yardage by about five yards, so he settled me down there.
PHOTOS: RORY IN FOCUS
See more photos here.
FINAL SCORES, MONEY & POINTS: THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP
TPC Sawgrass | Ponte Vedra Beach, FL | Mar 14-17, 2019
FINAL-ROUND VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS
Final-round highlights of the 2019 PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass where Rory McIlroy posted a 2-under 70 to reach 16-under and secure his 15th career PGA Tour victory.
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Credits: Getty Images, PGA TOUR Media, ASAP Fastscripts, Callaway, Open Championship