ATLANTA — A year ago at East Lake, Rory McIlroy was swallowed up by Tiger Woods and a sea of humanity. Last month in Memphis, he was bludgeoned by the baddest man in golf, Brooks Koepka.
Sunday at the Tour Championship, he was simply magnificent, particularly given what was at stake, as much as the stakes themselves: $15 million and a second FedEx Cup.
“I didn't enjoy that walk last year like everyone else did,” McIlroy said. “I played terribly. I got myself into the final group and never took the fight to Tiger. Going up against the No. 1 player in the world today, he got one over on me in Memphis, and I wanted to try to sort of get some revenge today. To play like that alongside Brooks and get the win, win the FedEx Cup, yeah, it's awesome.”
Big statement. Big paycheck. Not that McIlroy cared about the latter. At this point in his career, he is reportedly worth north of $150 million. What’s another 15?
More important to him? Accomplishing the tangible goals he'd set forth: Finishing the year atop the strokes-gained statistic, winning the tournament itself and getting back to No. 2 in the world. Check, check and check.
It was equally important that he not blow another opportunity, too. Despite a season in which he’d already won twice, including the Players, it was the ones that got away that had taken some shine off an otherwise standout season.
One of those came at last year’s Tour Championship, where playing alongside Woods in the last group on Sunday he stumbled home with a 74. Then there was the heavyweight showdown with Koepka last month at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, which was over faster than a Mike Tyson knockout. There were others in between, too. None mattered more than duels with the game's past and its present.
“I thought about the final group with Tiger last year, the final group with Brooks in Memphis a few weeks ago,” said McIlroy, who played 31 holes Sunday after completing the third round in the morning because of inclement weather the day before. “I really wanted to go out there and play well and really take it to him, and I did that for the most part.”
In Memphis, McIlroy led Koepka by a stroke going into the final round and it was Koepka who quickly erased the deficit with three birdies in his first six holes. McIlroy, meanwhile, was the only player in the top 10 who failed to break par and for a long while was the only player in the field not to make a birdie that day.
This time it was McIlroy who came out swinging, rolling in four birdies in his first 13 holes. He eventually finished the week tied for 11th in strokes-gained:putting—long the Achilles heel of his game—and more tellingly led the field in the final round.
Koepka, for all his big-game dominance, on the other hand, was the one out of sorts around East Lake. On the seventh hole, he blew his tee shot left and into the trees, never to be found. A birdie by McIlroy and a double by Koepka dropped Koepka two back of McIlroy, and he never caught him after that.
McIlroy wasn’t without his moments, but this time he overcame them. Most were sparked by the club that had haunted him time and again in the past.
Among the big putts: A 10-footer to save par on the third; a 23-footer for birdie on the seventh; a testy five-and-a-half footer to save par on the eighth; a 12-footer for birdie on 13; a clutch eight-footer to save par on 16.
Then he delivered two final birdies to cap off the win, a 15-footer on 17 and a six-footer on the last.
While Koepka began to fade—a missed par putt from four feet on 12 and bogeys on each of the next two holes—Xander Schauffele charged, climbing within one after he’d birdied 12 playing ahead of McIlroy. But that was as close as he’d get the rest of the way with five pars sandwiched around a bogey on 14.
Rory? He never got rattled, was never too high or too low. Standing across from Koepka didn't seem to bother him, either.
“Once I saw I was in the final group with Brooks, it just took me back to Memphis a few weeks ago, and I felt like I learned a few lessons that day,” he said. “I think one of the biggest things is sometimes I try to treat Sundays the same as a Thursday or Friday, and they're not.
“Brooks went out there in Memphis and shot 65 and just basically dominated the tournament, dominated me. And I realized if I want to become the dominant player in the world again, I need to be more like that.”
On this day he was. And perhaps many more ahead.