Rory McIlroy shook off his run of last-day disappointments to win the $12.5 million Players Championship, answering his critics in style as he claimed a sweet success at the end of a dramatic final round at Sawgrass.
The four-time major winner made five birdies in the space of eight holes from the ninth to close with a 70 for a 16-under-par 272 total, winning by a shot from Jim Furyk after the 48-year-old had birdied the last to set the clubhouse target. It was McIlroy’s first title triumph in just over a year, having appeared in nine final groupings since the start of 2018 without managing to get the job done.
Playing in the penultimate group on this occasion, the Northern Irishman had got his nose in front before suffering a setback when his approach at the fourth found water and cost him a double-bogey 6. He then followed a birdie at the sixth by giving that shot back straight away before getting into his stride again with birdies at the ninth, 11th and 12th. It looked as though another near miss might have been on the cards when he missed a short par putt at the 14th, but a brilliant approach from a fairway bunker saw him bounce back with a “massive” birdie.
He was left with only an 8-iron for his second into the par-5 16th, found the heart of the green for a straightforward birdie putt to move ahead once more and closed out the win with two rock-solid pars.
“It is very special,” he admitted. “If anything, those close calls have been good for me. Those experiences have helped me get to this point. They were good for me because they got me over the line today. I didn’t feel I needed a win going into Augusta. But it is good to get it, especially on this golf course. It was playing a little similar to how Augusta will be playing.
“I’ve had a great start to the year and this is a massive win. It will give me massive confidence going forward. I feel like I am playing some of the best golf of my life just now.”
Furyk, the losing US captain in last year’s Ryder Cup, closed with a 67 to finish second, a shot ahead of Englishman Eddie Pepperell and Colombia’s Jhonattan Vegas after they both holed monster birdie putts at the 17th en route to matching 66s.
Overnight leader Jon Rahm slipped to joint 12th after he could only manage a 76, with playing partner Tommy Fleetwood also having a frustrating day, though an eagle at the 16th helped him finish joint fifth.
Tiger Woods closed with a 69, his best round of the week, to end on six -under, a shot ahead of Russell Knox (72). “My score didn’t really indicate that going into the final day, but I was hitting the golf ball well,” said Woods. “I’m frustrated at lipping more putts out than I think I have in a very long time. (It’s) just one of those weeks where nothing really got rolling enough to get me going.”
Woods will now have a week off before contesting the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin, where he could play up to seven matches in a five-day span. “I’ve got a week off after that,” said Woods, who withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a neck injury. “I’m hoping I can play all the matches. That would be great.” Speaking about his preparations for The Masters, he added: “It’s right on track. I’m able to shape the ball both ways, which I’m going to need there. I just need a few more putts to go in, but that’s it.”
On the European Tour, Liam Johnston, left, rounded off a confidence-boosting week by finishing eighth behind Italian winner Guido Migliozzi in the Magical Kenya Open.
The last round in Nairobi also proved memorable for his fellow Scot, Bob MacIntyre, as he signed off by breaking the course record at Karen Country Club with an eight-under-par 63.
That stunning effort lifted MacIntyre 40 spots as he finished in the top 20 for the third time in his rookie season after graduating from the Challenge Tour last season.