Rory McIlroy was back on his heels.
He had made up six strokes on Scottie Scheffler in the first seven holes to tie for the lead during Sunday’s Tour Championship final round, but had made bogey on the 14 after a perfect tee shot. Now, he was standing on the long, par-3, island-green 15th, $18 million on the line.
What does he do?
Hit it to 32 feet and then drill the putt to tie for the lead once again.
“Come on!” McIlroy screamed.
After a clutch par save on the 16th — with a little assist from the flagstick — McIlroy pulled away from Scheffler, the FedEx Cup leader for most of the season, with a final-round 66 to win the Tour Championship by a stroke over Scheffler and Sungjae Im and the $18 million first-place prize of the FedEx Cup.
“I just felt so close all year,” McIlroy said moments after his victory. “I had a couple wins, but I was just waiting for something. Maybe this was it. I got a little lucky with Scottie not playing his best golf today, and I took advantage of that with my good play. But, you know, I went up against the best player in the world today and I took him down, and that’s got to mean something.”
The final round was a matchup of the tour’s most successful player this season in Scheffler, who led the tour with four wins, including the Masters, and its statistical best in McIlroy, who led in scoring average and Strokes-Gained: Total. However, Sunday afternoon, Scheffler looked far from the player who dominated much of the spring and had earned a two-stroke advantage to start the tournament in the staggered-start format. His cuts off the tee weren’t cutting, he hit just half of his greens in the final round, leading to his only over-par round of the week. He didn’t look like the player who made four birdies to finish his third round Sunday morning and open up a six-stroke lead over McIlroy and Xander Schauffele.
Meanwhile, McIlroy had a picture-perfect start to his championship Sunday and carried it into the final round.
He first birdied the two holes he had left to play on a marathon Sunday to complete his third round.
“It’s the perfect way to start the day, and hopefully I can continue that into this afternoon,” McIlroy said in the morning.
And he did continue it. Despite a bogey on the first hole at East Lake — the same one he tripled to open the tournament on Thursday — McIlroy made four birdies in the next six holes to pull even with Scheffler at 20-under-par.
Scheffler quickly pulled ahead again with a birdie on 8 to take the lead outright again, but that would be his last birdie of the day.
McIlroy pulled into a tie again on 12. Scheffler seemed indecisive on his second shot from 119 yards, backing off several times and checking the wind in the trees. His approach came up short, coming to rest nestled in the Bermuda rough. Scheffler made a great up-and-down to stay at 21-under, but McIlroy stuck his second to 6-feet and drained the putt.
McIlroy looked poised to take control on the long par-4 14th after a perfect, 346-yard drive, one of his many 330-yard bombs for the week, but blocked his second shot and short-sided himself. His third came up just short of the green, and he made bogey to fall out of the lead.
After the birdie on 15, both players in the final pairing drove it left on 16. Scheffler’s ball was nestled down in the rough, and he manufactured a shot into the front greenside bunker. McIlroy seemed to have the advantage in the fairway bunker, just 130 yards from the hole. He seemed to like his approach, even twirling his club, but the ball sailed long into the gallery behind the green, leaving a difficult third shot from the trampled down rough with the green running away from him.
His third was hot, running too fast, before he caught a break. The ball, which looked to be going off the green, hit the center of the pin and came to rest just 7 feet from the hole.
Scheffler failed to get up and down from the bunker while McIlroy drilled his par putt, giving him a one-shot lead, the first time anyone other than Scheffler had led all week.
The pair provided some light drama on the par-5 finishing hole as Scheffler left his second in the greenside bunker short right, but McIlroy snap-hooked his approach left into the grandstand. He caught another break with the ball ricocheting back into to play.
Scheffler hit his third long of the green, all but dooming his chances.
“It’s yours, Rory, take it,” a fan could be heard yelling as McIlroy was playing his third.
Needing just a par, McIlroy played it safe, hitting his third to 20 feet, and two-putting for the win after Scheffler’s birdie chip fell short.
McIlroy’s win puts a bow on a wild PGA Tour season in which the Tour saw a rival, LIV Golf, launch and sign several notable players. Among them were many of McIlroy’s longtime European Ryder Cup teammates. But McIlroy found himself as one of LIV’s most outspoken critics and, along with Tiger Woods, led some of the player effort to make wholesale changes to the PGA Tour. Just week, McIlroy announced the creation of a complementary league to the PGA Tour, the TGL, started by himself and Woods through their new TMRW Sports Group.
“Everyone on Tour has had to deal with a lot,” McIlroy said as the recent upheaval in the pro game. “Even the guys that have went to LIV have had to deal with a lot. It’s just been a very tumultuous sort of era in our game. I said it in the sort of prize ceremony there, this is the best place in the world to play golf. It’s the most competitive. It’s got the best players. It’s got the deepest fields. I don’t know why you’d want to play anywhere else.”
On Sunday evening, McIlroy surely had nothing to regret about the path he has chosen. He is now the only player to ever win three FedEx Cups, the last one coming with the largest single check of his career: $18 million.