GULLANE, Scotland — Remember all those doubts we all had about Rory McIlroy and his ability to perform with distinction on days when the wind is a bit more than light? The time has come to banish such foolish thoughts from previously skeptical minds.
Remember all those doubts we’ve all been having recently about Rory McIlroy and his ability to finish first in tournaments where he has led or at least been in strong contention down the stretch? The time has come to banish those notions, too.
All it took to change cynical minds was two holes.
Standing on the 16th tee during Sunday’s breezy final round of the Genesis Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club—winds blowing up to 30 miles per hour by day’s end—McIlroy heard a distant roar. Up ahead, Robert MacIntyre had made an unlikely birdie on the 18th—only the second of the day—to reach 14 under par for the tournament and, more crucially, one shot better than McIlroy as things stood.
OK, no need to panic. The 576-yard par-5 16th was playing into the strongish wind, but it was still reachable with a good drive, one McIlroy duly produced. The second shot, however, was less stellar, as was the pitch. And the resulting eight-footer slipped by. McIlroy would need to make a birdie over the closing two holes—both playing directly into the aforementioned wind—if he was to force a playoff and win in Scotland for the first time in his career.
He made two.
The 5-iron to the short 17th was beautifully struck through the wind, the ball finishing inside five feet from the cup. Birdie.
Then, following a solid drive to the left side of the elusive 18th fairway, McIlroy hit a low Tiger Woods-style 2-iron to just under nine feet. It was a magnificent shot in both the conditions and the circumstances. Birdie.
And victory, one that clearly brought with it a sense of relief on a few fronts.
“I’ve had my chances over the last couple of months and been knocking on the door,” McIlroy said. “I just haven't quite been able to get it done. Hopefully this breaks the seal and we can go on from here. I tried to say yesterday that I have improved as a wind player, and I feel like I have. Those two iron shots on the last two holes will prove that.”
The moment brought to mind for McIlroy his finish at the 2013 Australian Open at Royal Sydney when he was walking to the 17th tee one behind Adam Scott with two holes to play. “We were playing in the same group,” McIlroy recalled. “I holed a great putt on 17 for par to stay one behind playing the last. Then he made a bogey, and I made a birdie and I was able to clip him by a shot. I haven't thought about that tournament in probably years, but when I got myself into this position today, that's the first thing that popped into my head. Those memories and those experiences stand by you, and that just gave me a good feeling going into those last couple holes to try to do something special.”
Special might be an understatement. This was exceptional stuff, even for one so obviously gifted. And he was well aware of a wider significance beyond the destination of the title and the $1.575 million first-place check.
“You've got to hit great shots, but you also have to finish them off with putts.” McIlroy said. “That’s something I didn't do [in the Open] at St. Andrews last year, and it's something I didn't do at [the U.S. Open] in L.A. a few weeks ago. So to be able to hole those putts coming down the stretch when I needed to, was satisfying. I don't feel like it really proves anything. I don't feel like I need to prove anything in my career. But it's satisfying to know that I can still do it. It's nice to have the validation. It's great racking up top-fives and top-10s, but it's much nicer heading away with a trophy on Sunday afternoon.”
All of which came at the end of an inward-half of 3—in which he failed to birdie either par 5—and followed an opening nine that hinted more than a little that this just might be yet another near-miss in an increasingly long line of frustrations for the World No. 3. In the sort of blustery conditions in which he has historically struggled, the four-time major champion did just that. Four dropped shots scarred his scorecard over an opening ten holes that could have been even worse had lengthy putts for par not disappeared on the first and sixth greens.
At which point, caddie Harry Diamond stepped up.
“Harry told me there were still plenty of chances on this back nine,” McIlroy said. “10, 11, 12, 13 were all playing downwind. So was 15. He was just trying to keep me as positive as he could. Because the field teed-off on two tees, I saw that there were some better scores on that back nine. So I certainly didn't think I was out of it by any means going on to that 10th tee.”
There were some kind words too, for MacIntyre.
“If he can shoot 64 on a day like today, he can do anything,” enthused McIlroy, who shot a closing 68. “That was an unbelievable round of golf. And it's great to see him back on form as well. He had the win [the Italian Open] in Rome last year, but then sort of went off a little bit. So it’s nice to see him hitting some form again, especially at an important point of the year when he's looking to try to make the Ryder Cup team.”
Elsewhere and a little lower on the leaderboard, the three exempt spots available to this not already assured of a place in this week’s Open Championship went to Ben An, David Lingmerth and Nicolai Hojgaard, who will join his twin brother, Rasmus, in the field at Royal Liverpool.