Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 28, 2022

The Season’s Final Roars Are For Rory

While he has never chosen to wear a specific color during the final round of tournaments, such as the red shirts that have always instantly identified Tiger Woods, over the years Rory McIlroy has often favored blue on Sundays.  Perhaps that’s been mere chance, or maybe it’s been a quiet nod to the blue shirt he wore during the final round of the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, when McIlroy nearly lapped the field in claiming his first major title.  Whatever the reason, the color, in various hues, has appeared often enough on Sundays to be noticeable while not so regularly as to become a trademark.  So, it was not shocking, but at least mildly surprising, when McIlroy arrived at East Lake Golf Club’s 1st tee for the final round of this year’s Tour Championship wearing not blue, but green. 

That is, of course, the color of money, which made the sartorial selection entirely appropriate for the concluding 18 holes of the PGA Tour’s 2021-22 season.  In the broadest sense, money has been part of the conversation about professional golf throughout the year, thanks to the insane sums being handed out by Saudi-financed LIV Golf to entice top pros into signing up for its schedule of 54-hole exhibitions.  The former chair of the Player Advisory Council and current player director on the PGA Tour’s Policy Board, McIlroy has been the leading public voice defending the Tour against LIV’s assault.  Fans now know that he has also worked behind the scenes to both dissuade players from defecting and pressure commissioner Jay Monahan to make the Tour’s economic model more generous for top players and more stable for those just starting out.  The fruits of both efforts became clear this week, first with Monahan’s announcement of major change to the Tour’s financial structure, and then on Sunday with likely Rookie of the Year Cameron Young’s decision to turn down LIV’s entreaties.  

But money, lots of it, is also what the Tour’s season-long race for the FedEx Cup is all about.  When introduced in 2007, the winning bonus was $10 million, paid not in cash but as an annuity.  That latter feature has since been abandoned, and the total bonus pool this year is $75 million, with $18 million going to the champion.  Not even the Saudis have offered up a first-place check to match that – at least not yet.

The Tour has frequently tinkered with the format of the playoffs in an attempt to balance the season-long nature of the FedEx Cup race with the immediacy of the schedule’s final tournament.  Unhappy that this duality sometimes produced two champions, one of the golf tournament and the other of the points race and its massive bonus, the most recent revision in 2019 changed the tournament’s format by assigning “starting strokes” under par based on each golfer’s place in the FedEx Cup standings.  The “starting strokes” are the reward for twelve months of accumulating points, and the winner of the Tour Championship is now also the FedEx Cup titlist.  As the points leader, Scottie Scheffler teed off Thursday already 10-under par, with the rest of the field of twenty-nine anywhere from two to ten shots behind him. 

Shirt color aside, McIlroy admitted in a post-round interview that he thought little of his chances as the final round began.  That’s because through 54 holes Scheffler had played outstanding golf, expanding the two-stroke paper advantage he started with on Thursday to six by the end of the third round.  Scheffler’s strongest play actually came earlier on Sunday.  The third round had been suspended when thunderstorms approached East Lake late Saturday afternoon.  When the horn sounded, stopping play, Scheffler’s lead was down to just one stroke.  But he still had six holes to play, and when he returned to the course to finish Sunday morning, the world number one recorded four birdies over those final six holes to move to 23-under par, a half-dozen shots clear of McIlroy and Xander Schauffele, who had been tight with the leader a day earlier but couldn’t keep pace Sunday morning.

As the first to post 17-under, McIlroy was paired with Scheffler in the last group, and had to be buoyed by the knowledge that he had played just as well as the leader through the first three rounds.  Seventh in the points race coming into the Tour Championship, McIlroy had been allotted four “starting strokes” to Scheffler’s ten, so his deficit was entirely on paper and not the result of either’s play.  Still, six shots are a lot to make up in just 18 holes.  Until, that is, they aren’t.  A McIlroy birdie on the 3rd cut the lead to five, then a Scheffler bogey on the 4th made it four.  Another birdie by McIlroy on the 5th was followed by a birdie-bogey two-shot swing at the par-5 6th hole when Scheffler dumped his chip from the greenside rough into a bunker.  When McIlroy notched his third straight birdie with a 17-foot putt at the next, the daunting lead had disappeared entirely after just seven holes.

From there two of the game’s top players were effectively locked in match play.  Scheffler regained the advantage with a birdie at the 8th, but that would prove to be the only circle on his scorecard.  McIlroy tied it up again at the 12th, bobbled two holes later, and then caught Scheffler for the third time at the 15th when his curling long-range putt found the bottom of the cup for yet another birdie.

The decisive twist on a day full of turns came on the next hole.  McIlroy drove into a fairway bunker, from where he sailed his second into the gallery behind the green.  That appeared to give Scheffler the advantage, even though his own approach had found a greenside bunker.  But an indifferent sand shot by Scheffler left both with par putts in the ten-foot range.  Scheffler went first and missed.  McIlroy’s was straight and true, and the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup race had a new leader.

There was some final drama at the last, but another bunker play that was worse than indifferent by Scheffler effectively ended that.  With the focus on the final pairing, somewhat forgotten was Sungjae Im in the group ahead, whose final round 66 earned him a tie for second with Scheffler, but only after he had a look at a birdie putt on the 18th that would have brought him even with McIlroy.

There will surely be victories ahead for Im, on top of the two PGA Tour titles he’s already claimed.  And there will certainly be many wins in Scheffler’s future.  He burst into the consciousness of most golf fans with four victories in two months this spring, capped by his Masters win, where McIlroy was the runner-up.  But he also has five other top-10 finishes in majors and is still just 26 years old.  His number one ranking is no fluke.

But there was something unmistakably fitting about the PGA Tour’s massive year-end prize going to its strongest and most vocal defender.  This tournament was not a major.  It was not the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews.  It was not the Masters, which remains the roadblock to McIlroy’s career grand slam.  But it is the Tour’s ultimate financial reward, and this edition came at the end of a season dominated by talk of money.  An attorney for LIV Golf, in trying unsuccessfully to get his clients who had defected from the PGA Tour into this year’s playoffs, recently described the FedEx Cup as “the Super Bowl of golf.”  Well LIV, your worst enemy just won the Super Bowl, for a record-setting third time. 

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