Date: March 18, 2019
Author: Martin Blake

McIlroy is the Players champion

Rory McIlroy has broken a string of near-misses with a brilliant victory in the Players Championship at Sawgrass.

On a remarkable final day in Florida where half a dozen players had a chance to win, the Australians Jason Day (tied-eighth) and Adam Scott (tied-12th) fell just off the pace.

Day was chasing hard right until the par-five 16th where he needed eagle but he three-putted from an awkward lie, hanging out over the water, ultimately lipping out with his birdie from just over a metre.

The 48-year-old American veteran Jim Furyk was second, the Ryder Cup captain conjuring a memorable finish when he stiffed his iron shot at the par-four 18th hole and posted 15-under par for a one-shot lead.

Furyk (67 today) went to the clubhouse and waited but soon enough, McIlroy hit it close on the par-four 15th hole and made a birdie to tie him, and then with a monster drive and a gorgeous nine-iron second shot to the par-five 16th, he two-putted for the birdie that put him in the outright lead.

Of course, it was far from over at that point. The Northern Irishman had to negotiate the water at the par-three 17th and the par-four 18th but he was near-flawless in parring in from there. At 17, he hit it to 10 metres and almost holed the birdie; at 18, he flogged his drive down the fairway and almost hit the flagstick with his eight iron approach when a safer line would have been right of the flag.

Two putts later he had his first Players title. McIlroy had raised doubts about his capacity to close with a bunch of top-five finishes this season: tied-fourth, tied-fifth, tied-fourth, second and tied-sixth, but afterwards, he said the disappointments had driven him forward.

“Good chance in Hawaii, good chance in LA, good chance in Mexico, last week (at Bay Hill). I think it’s just a combination of getting those experiences,’’ he said. “I felt more and more comfortable each time. I almost liked today because it’s tough. I knew the (leading) guys weren’t going to get away from us.’’

McIlroy did not even need to bring his best. He double bogeyed the fourth hole after finding water, having started out a shot back, but the players around him, including final-pairing Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood, were going backwards under the pressure. Rahm (76 today) and Fleetwood (73) both gave back ground on the day, although Fleetwood eagled the 16th to give himself a sniff of a chance. Heading straight at the flag on the par-three 17th, he found the water and his chances passed.

It made life a little easier for McIlroy, who nevertheless closed with four birdies on the back nine. “Any time I looked at the leaderboard I was pleasantly surprised that I hadn’t fallen two or three shots behind,’’ he said. “That gave me some encouragement and I played a great back nine.’’

Day shot an even-par 72 on the day without ever really hitting his best, while Scott was up and running early before he hit two water balls on the back nine, taking bogey at two par-fives. It was a difficult day for most other than the likes of Furyk, Eddie Pepperell (66) and Jonny Vegas (66), the latter holing a 25-metre birdie putt on the 17th.

“There’s so much on the line,’’ said McIlroy. “I’m just thankful it was my turn this week. I felt like if I stayed patient enough things would work out for me and I’m glad they have.’’