Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy, shake hands and come out fighting

July 27, 2019
FedEx St. Jude Invitational - Round One

Ben Jared

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Big Game Brooks versus Rory the Resilient.

Sunday’s final round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational isn’t to decide a major championship. But it is a major opportunity—especially for the 30-year-old Northern Irishman.

“It is exciting,” said McIlroy, who leads Koepka by a stroke through 54 holes at TPC Southwind after an eight-under-par 62 on Saturday. “He’s the No. 1 player in the world, four majors in the last three years. He's the man right now.”

It’s also an opportunity for McIlroy to prove that he’s more than resilient. It’s a chance to show a level of mental toughness that at times has been missing and prove that he can perform when the pressure is at its highest.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that McIlroy was the man.

From 2011-'16, McIlroy won 19 times around the globe, including four majors, to become the third player to win at least four majors by age 25 (joining Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods). He was the No. 1 player in the world, had the Golden Bear saying that he could win 15 or 20 majors, and appeared to be the face of the sport for the foreseeable future.

In the years since, however, McIlroy has gone majorless. He has won other titles along the way, of course, including this year's Players Championship, but he has built up his share of scar tissue, too—the final-round meltdown at the 2011 Masters (and myriad other opportunities at Augusta National), to the opening-round implosion at last week’s Open Championship at Portrush, with plenty of other examples.

One of them came here at TPC Southwind. A stroke off the lead in the final round of the 2012 FedEx St. Jude Classic, McIlroy, needing to birdie the 18th, stepped to the tee on the par 4 and yanked his 3-wood left and into the lake.

Last week’s Open Championship was the first played in Northern Ireland in 68 years, at a course where he’d shot 61 as a 16-year-old, just an hour from where McIlroy grew up. Carrying the expectations of a nation, he stepped onto the first tee in the first round, felt his pulse race, his hands shake and watched as his tee shot with an iron inexplicably tumbled out-of-bounds. He went on to quadruple-bogey the hole, made triple at the last and shot a stunning 79.

That McIlroy bounced back the next day and nearly made the cut was hardly a surprise. He has a history of doing that, too—his win in Canada earlier this year came after a missed cut the week before at the Memorial and featured a final-round 61.

“I guess the pressure’s off a little bit,” McIlroy said. “You've had a bad week, and you go to the next week and you say, 'OK, I didn't do this well.' So you're sort of trying to focus on that rather than winning the tournament.

“So for me, this week I wanted to focus on neutralizing my ball flight and trying to dial in my distances. All of a sudden, you know, those two little focus points, have made me play some good golf again.”

Now the question is, does he have the mettle to hold off Koepka, and the rest of his pursuers? In addition to Koepka, there are 11 players within five shots of the lead going into Sunday.

None loom larger than Koepka, though.

Over the last two years, no one has been better in big moments. At one point, Koepka won four of seven majors he played, which included this year’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. In the year’s other three majors, he finished T-2 (Masters), second (U.S. Open) and fourth (the Open).

“Every time I tee it up, I feel like I have a chance to make some history,” he said. “It's a neat place to be. I'm playing some incredible golf right now. It's fun. I'm enjoying it while it lasts.”

Sunday will also mark the first time that McIlroy and Koepka have been paired in the final round of a tournament, and in some ways the round is an opportunity for Koepka, who has just two non-major wins on tour.

Throw in an extra $2 million to the winner of the Wyndham Rewards competition, and the stakes become that much higher.

“It will be a fun day tomorrow,” Koepka said. “There's a lot, I guess, on the line and a lot to play for."

Especially for McIlroy.