For the sixth time since 2012, Rory McIlroy entered Sunday’s final round of the Tour Championship at East Lake with an opportunity to take home a nice trophy and an exorbitant check.
McIlroy converted just one of his first chances, a .200 batting average that placed him squarely on baseball’s Mendoza line, a benchmark for light hitting utility infielders. Three times he shot final rounds of 4-over 74, the other time he could do no better than 71 after being tied for the lead after 54 holes.
The one success for McIlroy at East Lake came in 2016, when he shot a final round 64 to win one of the most exciting Tour Championships on the fourth hole of a three-way playoff after beginning the final round two off the lead.
This time, McIroy was only one behind leader Brooks Koepka, and tied for second with 2017 Tour Championship winner Xander Schauffele.
While both Koepka and Schauffele struggled to find the fairways in the final round, McIlroy put on a driving clinic and used his combination of power and accuracy to fire a closing 66 for a 4-stroke victory, and the FedExCup bonus of $15 million.
McIlroy, who was one of the more vocal skeptics regarding the scoring changes for the Tour Championship initiated this year by the PGA Tour, did the Tour a huge favor by his manner of victory. He would have won both the tournament and the FedExCup under any circumstance, ending the debate about the much discussed alteration of the scoring system that ended the Tour Championship’s status as an actual tournament and turned it into what one writer called the FedExCup Playoffs Finale.
Players were awarded shots based on their standings in the FedExCup after the second of the two Playoffs events preceding the Tour Championship, with McIlroy beginning the week in fifth place at 5-under, five behind leader Justin Thomas. Patrick Cantlay was second at minus-8, followed by Koepka at minus-7 and Patrick Reed at minus-6.
The remaining 25 players were somewhere between minus-4 and even par, and none of them were able to contend for the $15 million bonus to the FedExCup champion. McIlroy, Schauffele and Koepka finished 1-2-4 for the week without the benefit of their added strokes under par.
The new scoring system was devised to ensure that there would be only one player leaving East Lake with a trophy. When Tiger Woods scored his memorable comeback win in the Tour Championship last year, there was much confusion on the part of his legion of fans who could not fathom why he did not win the FedExCup when he won the Tour Championship.
With the change in scoring, the PGA also eliminated the white board calculations by the Golf Channel’s SteveSandswhile dealing with the constantly changing FedExCup scenarios as the final round played out.
McIlroy’s performance put all the potential controversy aside, as he won by four under the new system and by three without artificial alterations. McIlory shot 13-under 267, matching Henrik Stenson in 2013 for the lowest 72-hole total at East Lake since the greens were converted from bent grass to Champions Bermuda after the 2007 Tour Championship.
Schauffele was next at 270, with Paul Casey third at 273 and Koepka fourth at 274. Only 12 of the 30 players in the field finished under for the tournament without help.
McIlroy’s aided winning total was 18-under, with Schauffele second at 14-under and Koepka and Thomas tying for third at 13-under. Without his 10-shot head start, Thomas would have tied for ninth, but beginning the tournament with a lead over the entire field seemed to wear on him. Cantley, who started the tournament in second place, beat only two players for the week, shooting 9-over without shots and wound up outside the top 20 after starting at minus-8.
“My goal today was to go and win by even strokes,” McIlroy said after his victory. “So if everyone started on even this week, my goal was to just shoot the lowest score of the week.”
McIlory succeeded in that effort, and enabled the PGA Tour to avoid questions about someone winning a tournament without shooting the lowest score.
That wasn’t the only fortunate break for the PGA Tour last week. In order to maximize TV ratings, the leaders teed off at 3:20 p.m. on Saturday despite a weather forecast predicting possible thunderstorms beginning around 4 p.m.
Play was halted less than an hour after the leaders teed off, and 30 minutes after that, lightning struck East Lake in multiple spots, injuring six people. All those taken to the hospital for treatment were released later that night, with the tour suspending play for the day and resuming the third round early Sunday morning.
There were no weather concerns the final day, and the tournament was completed on time, with the main contenders getting a break of several hours between the end of the third round and the start of the fourth.
Schauffele, who started the tournament 4-under, was Thursday’s star, firing a 6-under 64 to tie Thomas and Koepka at minus-10. McIlroy was one back after an opening 66, and Matt Kuchar, Hideki Matsuyama and Casey also shot 66 to move into contention.
Koepka took the midway lead a minus-13 after another 67, with McIlroy (67) and Thomas (68) second at minus-12 and Schauffele (69) fourth at minus-11. Casey, who would have shared the 36-hole lead with McIlroy and Schauffele at 133, was fifth at minus-9, the only other player within five shots of the lead.
With Koepka off to a slow start Saturday before play was halted for the day, Thomas regained the lead at minus-12, one ahead of Koepka and McIlroy and two in front of Schauffele, with all four no better than even par for the round when play was suspended. Chez Reavie, who shot 64 Friday to move up the leader board, was 3-under after noie holes Saturday and within three of the lead, but shot 3-over on the back nine Sunday morning and fell out of contention.
Koepka was 4-under for his 13 holes Sunday morning to take the lead going to the final round at 15-under. Schauffele was also 4-under Sunday morning and started the fourth round at minus-14 in a tie with McIroy, who was 3-under Sunday morning for a 68. Thomas and Casey were fourth at minus-11, with no other player closer than nine shots behind Koepka.
Schauffele briefly pulled even with Koepka for the lead early on the front nine Sunday afternoon, but there was no significant change on the leader board until the seventh hole. Koepka, who won both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship back-to-back in 2017 and 2018 on courses more forgiving off the tee than East Lake, drove way left off the seventh tee and never found his ball.
McIlroy rolled in a 20-footer for birdie on the hole for a 3-shot swing, as Koepka made double bogey. Schauffele bogeyed the eighth after an errant tee shot, but closed within one of the lead with a birdie at the 12th.
Laying up off the tee on the short par-4 12th, Koepka missed one of his nine fairways on the day and lipped out a short par putt after an excellent bunker shot. McIlroy hit his second from the fairway within 3 ½ feet for birdie, and made another birdie at the 13thafter a big drive (again in the fairway), a precise approach and an 11-foot putt. Koepka fell five back with a three-putt from less than 20 feet, and all three contenders bogeyed the long and difficult par-4 14th.
McIlroy also bogeyed the dangerous par-3 15thafter landing in the greenside bunker, reducing his lead to two. He holed a clutch 8-footer for par at the 16thto preserve his lead on the hole where he won the 2016 Tour Championship. He holed out for eagle on Sunday three years ago to get into the playoff, and ended it with a birdie putt there.
With Schauffele still within two of his lead, McIlroy holed a 15-footer for birdie at 17 and wrapped up his victory and FedExCup title with an up-and-down birdie from a greenside bunker at the par-5 18th.
McIlroy’s final round 66 matched Adam Scott for low round of the day and increased his final margin of victory to four, three without the artificial scoring changes.
The win was doubly sweet for McIlroy. He said he played “terribly” at East Lake in the final round last year in a pairing with Woods, “and I didn’t enjoy that walk (down the 18th) like everyone else did.”
In the recent World Golf Championship tournament in Memphis, McIlroy led Koepka by a shot going to the final round, but Koepka dominated the head-to-head battle, shooting 65 to Mcilroy’s 71 to win easily.
“He got one over on me in Memphis, and I wanted to try and get some sort of revenge today. To play like that alongside Brooks and get the win, win the FedExCup, it’s awesome.”
McIlroy’s win at East Lake capped a remarkably consistent year for the 30-year-old. He also won the Players Championship and Canadian Open, shooting a final round 61 in the latter. In 19 PGA Tour starts in 2019, he had 14 top 10s including the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. He played one of the most memorable rounds of the year in the British Open at Portrush in his native Northern Ireland, shooting a second round 65 to miss the cut by just one shot after a disheartening 79 the previous day.
“I’ve given myself so many chances, and to win three times is awesome. To win the FedExCup again, to persist the whole way throughout the year, to keep giving myself chances even when I was getting knocked back and not be denied, I’m very proud of myself.
“I’m going to enjoy this one.”