Rory McIlroy proves his doubters wrong again and again

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Rory McIlroy proves his doubters wrong again and again

PGA Tour

Rory McIlroy proves his doubters wrong again and again

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ATLANTA – It’s hard to imagine after watching Rory McIlroy conquer his peers and get the better of daunting East Lake Golf Club en route to a commanding victory in Sunday’s Tour Championship that we had our doubts about his well-being earlier this year.

It was just five months ago when we wondered if he was making a beeline to the nearest psychologist after his Sunday shortcomings started to pile up. At the time, he was 0-for-9 dating to 2018 when he started the final round in the final group.

And with each stunning miss from short distance with the putter, we winced. Over and over and over again. He was breathtaking from the tee; we held our breath when he putted. He was a four-time major champion but had just one win in 30 months.

We wondered what was wrong with Rory.

Well, we should have listened, for he kept telling everyone that all was right in his world and as the months had gone by without him clutching championship hardware, there were no demons assaulting his mind, no reasons to panic, no intentions to change his ways.

He was right. And boy, did he make the doubters look foolish.

His patience was rewarded a short time later when he ended a 12-month winless stretch at the Players Championship, where he won a Sunday duel that saw 11 players finish within four strokes of the winning margin.

Then he won the RBC Canadian Open with a 61 in the final round.

Then came Sunday at East Lake where he won golf’s biggest check – $15 million. But as McIlroy will tell you, the money is great, the hardware better. It’s why he kept telling himself to think about the process, not the prize during the final round.

And as stunning as his driver was – he had 28 drives of 320 yards or longer – his work with the short stick was equally striking. On a long day under cloudy skies, McIlroy kept burying big putts over 31 holes and won by four shots over Xander Schauffele.

McIlroy did so playing alongside world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, who rocked McIlroy when the two were in the last group on the final day at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational a month ago in Memphis.

“He got one over on me in Memphis, and I wanted to try to sort of get some revenge today,” McIlroy said. “To play like that alongside Brooks and get the win, win the FedExCup, yeah, it’s awesome.”

McIlroy also will tell you he thought of Tiger Woods, and how he walked alongside him in the final group in last year’s Tour Championship when the red shirt won for the first time in five years.

Coming down 18 last year, the two were nearly swallowed whole by thousands of patrons who stormed the fairway chanting, “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger” the whole way. McIlroy played poorly that day, shooting 74 to fall down the leaderboard, and never gave Woods a fight.

It stung. This Sunday, however, the crowds sang for McIlroy, roaring “Rory, Rory, Rory” down the 18th.  McIlroy turned to his caddie, Harry Diamond, and said this year’s walk down 18 was a bit more pleasant.

“I thought about the final group with Tiger last year, the final group with Brooks in Memphis a few weeks ago, and I really wanted to go out there and play well and really take it to him, and I did that for the most part,” McIlroy said. “I went out, shot 66 on a really tough golf course and got the job done.”

McIlroy isn’t the type to say, “I told you so.” Instead, he told us with his clubs. Because of Saturday’s lightning strikes that rattled the grounds and suspended play until Sunday, the leaders played 31 holes. McIlroy made 11 birdies against just four bogeys. He made huge par putts, none bigger than the 8-footer on the 16th hole in the final round that kept him from making three consecutive bogeys and kept his two-shot edge intact.

Then he finished with birdies from 15 feet and 6 feet on the final two holes. He shot the best 72-hole score this week. He was Rory again.

“I would have been disappointed if I didn’t win because I’ve given myself so many chances. To get that third win of the year was big for me,” said McIlroy, who joined Woods as the only two to win the FedEx Cup twice. “I feel like I could have won more. But to win the FedEx Cup 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.”

It was McIlroy’s 14th top-10 in 19 starts this year on the PGA Tour. That’s some mighty consistency, which McIlroy told us he was striving to attain this year.

“His game is in great form right now,” Koepka said. “It’s really impressive to watch. Like I’ve said multiple times, he’s the most fun to watch when he’s playing well. He hits it so good, he putts it really well, and when he’s on, man, he’s tough to beat. I enjoy competing against Rory. He’s a tough competitor. He grinds it out, man. Even when you’re playing with him, it’s fun to watch him.”

Koepka was speaking for all of us.

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