Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2016

Rory Beats The Field, The Storm And His Demons

Less than a half hour into his first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, the last thing on Rory McIlroy’s mind was winning the tournament. So too it’s unlikely that any of the multitude of fans who have followed the career of the golfing sensation from Holywood, Northern Ireland would have forecast such a result. Starting on the back nine for his opening walk around the sprawling layout that is the TPC Boston golf course, McIlroy parred the 10th hole. But he followed that with a bogey on the uphill par-3 11th, and then recorded a disastrous triple-bogey seven on the 12th hole, a long par-4 with water fronting the green. Just three holes into the tournament McIlroy was already four over par.

For all the preternatural talent that allowed McIlroy to capture four majors by age twenty-five and spend more time at the top of the Official World Golf Rankings than all but three other players in the thirty year history of the rankings, he has always had a tendency to let misfortune gnaw at him. After a few dropped shots fans have seen his shoulders slump and his countenance turn dour. Soon enough a missed cut or a poor finish has followed. In March 2013 McIlroy walked off the course at the Honda Classic in the middle of a poor first round, claiming pain from a bad tooth. Early last year he tossed a fairway wood into a pond at Doral after hitting his ball into the same body of water.

But on Friday the familiar scenario did not play itself out. Perhaps it was a product of the maturity that comes with being all of twenty-seven years old. Perhaps it was confidence in a new putter and new putting coach. Or perhaps, having gone winless in the U.S. for more than a year and seen his ranking drop from first to fifth in that time, McIlroy felt like he had nothing to lose. Whatever the reason, McIlroy soldiered on, going bogey-free for the remainder of the Deutsche Bank’s first round while recovering all four of those early dropped shots.

After making a small change to his putting grip Saturday morning, he followed that even par start with rounds of 67 and 66 to climb steadily up the leader board. He closed his third round with a near albatross, his second shot approach to the reachable par-5 18th hole lipping out of the cup. Still at 9-under par he began Monday’s final round six shots adrift of Paul Casey, with five other golfers between himself and the 54-hole leader.

Along with the rest of the field McIlroy also faced changeable weather conditions. The storm that had once been Hurricane Hermine was swirling out in the Atlantic southeast of New England. The PGA Tour moved up the starting times and sent the players off both sets of tees on Monday, trying to get the tournament completed before predicted rain and heavy wind arrived. The rain never materialized, but the wind rose steadily as the final round progressed. Flags that were drooping when the first groups went off were whipped to attention by the time the leaders made the turn, even as the massive trees around the course swayed back and forth. Players were forced to repeatedly back off of shots, trying to time their swings for a break in the punishing gusts.

With the intensifying breezes scoring became steadily more difficult. The final threesome of Casey, Brian Harman and Smilie Kaufman shot a combined 13-over par. Two groups ahead Justin Rose, the Olympic gold medalist, was 2-under for the day through ten holes. He then played the final eight in ten strokes over par. Of the last dozen golfers on the course, just three managed to record a round under par. The best of those was McIlroy, whose closing 65 matched Adam Scott, who had finished almost an hour earlier, for the low round of the day.

After early birdies at the 2nd and 4th holes, McIlroy caught Casey with a string of three straight birdies to close the front nine. That improved putting stroke yielded dividends on the 8th and 9th holes, but the key to the round may have come on the par-5 7th. From the middle of the fairway after a 308 yard drive McIlroy went for the green in two. His shot from 274 yards was a foot from perfect, landing on the slope between a greenside bunker and the putting surface. But instead of bouncing forward it dropped back into the sand. Faced with a bit of bad luck and a long bunker shot, McIlroy’s shoulders never slumped. Instead he played a perfect sand wedge, the ball stopping three feet from the hole for an easy birdie.

An hour later, with the wind rising, McIlroy seized the lead for good by rolling in a twenty foot birdie putt on the 12th hole, the scene of his opening round embarrassment. Even as the cheers for that effort were echoing around the TPC Boston’s back nine, Casey was making bogey on the 11th, giving McIlroy a sudden two-shot lead. A little more than an hour after that, another perfect long bunker shot on the 18th left him with a tap-in for one final birdie that sealed McIlroy’s victory.

After winning both the Deutsche Bank and the BMW Championship in 2012, with this triumph McIlroy joined Tiger Woods as the only player to have won more than two FedEx Cup playoff events. He also moved to fourth in this year’s FedEx Cup standings, with two events remaining; and rose to third in the world rankings. He did it by shooting a lower score each day, and his best score of all under the most difficult conditions. He did it by ranking 7th in putting, one week after ranking 70th at The Barclays. He did it by storming through the field in the final round, recording an eight shot swing over the third round leader.

Most of all, as he acknowledged, he did it by not giving up on himself. “It’s just incredible, this game, how quickly things can change and how quickly things can turn around,” McIlroy said in a post-tournament interview. “It’s been a great lesson for me this week not to get down on myself, to stay patient. You learn with experience and a little bit more maturity that it’s four-round golf tournaments. It’s a long time. There’s a lot that can happen, and I sort of proved that to myself this week.” If he truly has learned that lesson, then it’s safe to say that Rory’s back.

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