By winning the Tour Championship yesterday in Atlanta, and with it the FedEx Cup for the first-time, Rory McIlroy has turned a decent, if disappointing by his high standards, season into a great one. Until the FedEx play-offs began his only win this year was the Irish Open. The new FedEd Cup winner now heads to the Ryder Cup before focussing on next year’s majors, starting with the US Masters in April.
To be fair, it was only his putting that has been the problem. The rest of his game was in great shape. And, after missing the cut in a major for the second time this year at the US PGA in July, he changed putter and started working with renowned putting guru Phil Kenyon.
Success followed shortly afterwards with his first PGA Tour title of the year in the Deutsche Bank tournament – the second of the FedEx Cup play-offs – and, after a solid if unspectacular BMW event, a win in the Tour Championship in Atlanta after 4 sudden death play-off holes, and with it the FedEx Cup.
He started the final round in third place at -6, 2 shots off the lead, needing to overhaul joint-leader Dustin Johnson, and win, to be in with a chance of the FedEx title.
As it was, the long-standing favourite for the title Johnson faded on the final day, but two others stood between Rory and victory.
With three holes to play, Rory was on -9, 3 shots off the lead, with Ryan Moore on -11 and Kevin Chappell on -12.
Then this happened at the 454 yard, par 4, 16th.
Chappell followed Rory onto the 16th and made birdie to extend his lead to 2, but dropped a shot on the 17th, with Moore joining him on -12. Rory, needing a birdie on the par 5 18th to tie the lead, hit his tee shot into the trees on the right before taking what the commentators described as a risky decision to go for the green with his second. Landing in the bunker, he splashed it out to within a few feet of the hole, and made the required birdie to set up a three-way play-off.
After narrowly missing an eagle chance to finish it on the first play-off hole, 18th – where Chappell dropped out – it took another three holes to finally secure the win with this 14 foot birdie putt at the 16th.
If the twirl of the club after executing a shot is the definitive tell-tale sign of Rory McIlroy’s brilliance, it is something unseen that really makes him tick. That inner strength of mind, a total belief in himself, is something that money can’t buy; and the 27-year-old Northern Irishman’s Tour Championship victory and annexation of the FedEx Cup title with a combined $11.5 million bonus payday is testament to McIlroy’s conviction.
In terms of timing, McIlroy’s all-conquering win in the Tour Championship was perfect for Europe’s Ryder Cup team ahead of the match at Hazeltine this week. Yet, this win was for himself and his team and the decision to switch putters – made in the days and weeks after missing the cut at the US PGA at Baltusrol – has proven to be the wisest of moves.
McIlroy’s personal CV is very nearly complete, with only the Masters left. By winning the Tour Championship – and, in typical McIlroy fashion, with drama and flair – the world number three turned a decent season into a great season. But that decision to switch to a Scotty Cameron prototype mallet could yet prove to be a career-defining move that could also contribute to ticking that final box at Augusta National some time.