Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 25, 2019

On Golf’s Biggest Payday, Rory Bounces To Victory

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be at the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Thursday, so the next post will be Friday, one day later than usual. As always, thanks for reading!

After forty-six tournaments and more than 1.2 million shots, the 2018-19 PGA Tour season ended Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. On the 18th green at historic East Lake Golf Club, Rory McIlroy surveyed a six foot putt for a birdie four. With the confidence of a player enjoying his best year in the Tour’s statistic of Strokes Gained – Putting, the four-time major champion rolled the ball into the center of the cup for victory at the Low Net Country Club Final, also known as the Tour Championship, McIlroy’s third win of the year.

To be sure, that final putt was stress-free, as the 30-year-old from Northern Ireland was three shots clear of his nearest competitor when he stood over his ball. With the final birdie on East Lake’s par-5 closing hole, McIlroy won the tournament by four over Xander Schauffele, with pre-tournament favorite Justin Thomas and 54-hole leader Brooks Koepka both one stroke further adrift. That at least is what the final leader board showed, with McIlroy at 18-under, Schauffele at 14, and Thomas and Koepka next among the thirty contestants at 13-under par. Any other week the first page of the leader board would have looked somewhat different, with Paul Casey edging Koepka for third place and Thomas just barely inside the top-10.

The confusing difference was due to the Tour’s decision to eliminate the possibility of one golfer winning the season’s final event while someone else claimed the FedEx Cup based on the Tour’s year-long points race. For the first time the points accumulated up to this week were used only to handicap the field, with Thomas, as the points leader at the start of the tournament, teeing off on Thursday with a “score” of 10-under par. Everyone else in the field was given a diminishing number of strokes to start, with only the bottom five of the thirty golfers actually starting at even par, as everyone does every other week of the year.

While the staggered start was PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s way of making the season’s final event “winner take all,” he and everyone in the Tour’s marketing department probably breathed a sigh of relief when that final putt dropped and the leader board became official, since at least the top two positions would have been the same. McIlroy played the 72 holes at the challenging old course first laid out in 1906 and redesigned by Donald Ross in 1913 in fewer actual shots than anyone else in the field, finishing with a true score of minus-13. Schauffele was second in real life as well, with a 10-under par total. Had Thomas had a better week and posted an official score of say, 19-under, he would have been the FedEx Cup champion, although since he began the tournament with a five-stroke edge over McIlroy, Rory’s fans would not have been pleased.

Such a controversial ending is exactly what would have happened last year, had the new format been in place. East Lake would have been remembered as the site where Justin Rose “won” based on the adjusted scores, and by doing deprived Tiger Woods, who shot the lowest true score, of his first victory in more than five years. One suspects the increased attention for the Tour would not have been exactly the kind Monahan and company were seeking when they devised the new format.

McIlroy made clear the scoring that he thought most important during his first post-tournament interview, when he told NBC that even with his lead, he remained focused on the final putt because he wanted to be certain of finishing with the fewest actual strokes. As it turned out he had a comfortable margin there as well, thanks to a final round that was for the most part scintillating and resolute when it most needed to be.

After play was suspended on Saturday when lightning storms moved through the area and twin strikes on the East Lake grounds injured six spectators – thankfully none seriously – the golfers were out on the course early Sunday to complete the third round. With the limited field they were able to do so and still tee off for the final eighteen at the planned afternoon start times. Koepka took a one-shot lead over McIlroy and Schauffele into the final round, a margin that disappeared on the par-4 7th hole. He sent his tee shot so far left into thick trees that even with the crowd of spectators and plenty of officials on hand, the Titleist was never found. The lost ball led to a double-bogey six and resulted in a three-shot swing when McIlroy made birdie. While Koepka bounced back with a birdie on the next hole, he was never able to catch McIlroy and saw his chances disappear with a string of three straight bogeys on the back nine.

With his fellow competitor fading McIlroy’s main competition came from Schauffele, who was playing one pairing ahead. The 24-year-old Californian who has won four times on Tour doubtless heard the roars as McIlroy made consecutive birdies on the back nine to stretch his lead to four. But he could also see the electronic score boards on every hole that showed the leader giving two of those shots back with bogeys on the 14th and 15th. McIlroy was in trouble again on the long par-4 16th, where he put his tee shot in a fairway bunker and came up short of the green with his approach. After chipping on he faced a par putt from nine feet. No part of his game has improved more this year than McIlroy’s putting, and his par save effort curled into the heart of the cup. When Schauffele was unable to generate a red number on the closing holes, McIlroy pumped up his final margin and ensured his victory at both gross and net with two more birdies on the walk home. Although “walk” is not quite accurate, for when McIlroy is doing well, he doesn’t walk so much as bounce along, and as the afternoon shadows lengthened Rory was all but defying gravity as he made his way down East Lake’s fairways.

The PGA Tour generates more than $200 million each year for a wide range of charities through the largesse of its many corporate sponsors. But with the enhanced FedEx Cup payouts in place this season, Sunday was about fattening the players’ bank accounts. McIlroy earned $15 million, one-third of the $45 million in bonus money. But there was plenty to share, with the top eight finishers all taking home more than $1 million, and Dustin Johnson and Lucas Glover, who tied for last place, each winning $400,000. That the PGA Tour’s permanent home for this annual obscene money grab is East Lake, once the home club of the game’s consummate amateur Bobby Jones, seems somehow inappropriate. But the guess here is that no one in the field will refuse to cash their check.

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