Spring 2020

New Number One

 

By Robert James

As much as he later said he enjoyed being part of and witness to history a year prior at East Lake, Rory McIlroy didn’t much relish that final-hole walk. Fans rushing past him. That chanting and singing and hollering for someone else. The fleeting fear of being trampled.

 

It was a hollow feeling, one made worse by knowing McIlroy had far from his best stuff in the final round of the Tour Championship in 2018, when Tiger Woods reveled in his first victory in five years.

 

That was hardly the case on the final day of the 2019 PGA Tour season.

 

In another high-intensity battle, this one with the reigning PGA Tour player of the year Brooks Koepka, it was McIlroy who prevailed, beating back all challengers, shooting the lowest 72-hole score, and erasing all doubt about who is the FedEx Cup champion.

 

He also had his own final-hole coronation, not quite at the same level as the one he saw with Woods in 2018, but one that was quite satisfying nonetheless.

 

“I didn’t enjoy that walk like everyone else did,” McIlroy said after shooting a final-round 66 to win by four strokes over Xander Schauffele. “I played terribly, I never took the fight to Tiger. Going up against the No. 1 player in the world (in Koepka), he got one over on me in Memphis, and I wanted to try to sort of get some revenge.

 

“To play like that alongside Brooks and get the win, win the FedEx Cup, yeah, it’s awesome. It’s amazing how different things can be in a year.”

 

So, too, is it amazing to think how McIlroy’s year would have been viewed without the victory, which moved him to No. 2 in the world behind Koepka.

 

He had played 18 times worldwide, won three times, and posted a total of nine top-5 finishes to that point.

 

That’s a career year for most, but for McIlroy, 30, who has now gone five years since winning the fourth of his major championships, the inability to contend in any, plus the shortcomings in some other events where he was near the lead, seemed to overshadow the success.

 

The missed cut in his native Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush was a particularly harsh blow, but then there he was a week later in the final group at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis, only to be swept away in a final-round showdown that never materialized. Rarely does finishing tied for fourth feel so bad.

 

“I think it gave me just a little bit extra incentive,” McIlroy said. “Once I saw I was in the final group with Brooks, it just took me back to Memphis a few weeks (prior), and I felt I learned a few lessons that day. I wanted to right some of the wrongs that I made that Sunday, and it was a good opportunity to do it.”

 

McIlroy didn’t contend down the stretch in the first two FedEx Cup playoff events, but fared well enough to enter the strokes-adjusted final event in fifth place, five strokes behind Justin Thomas. He then shot scores of 66-67-68-66 to win his second FedEx title, joining Woods as the only players to do so.

 

“He played great golf, pretty much mistake-free,” said Koepka, whose three straight bogeys on the back nine knocked him out of contention before he tied for third with Thomas. “He was impressive to watch. He put it in the fairway a lot, hit a lot of greens. The up and down he made at 11, that was pretty tasty right there. And then the way he finished it off was impressive.”

 

McIlroy and Koepka have seen a good bit of each other in 2019, and were grouped often of late due to their close proximity in the FedEx Cup standings. At similar ages, with the same number of major championships (four) but with wildly different backgrounds, perhaps a burgeoning rivalry is developing.

 

It certainly would be welcomed, and both players welcome the challenge. “I enjoy competing against Rory,” Koepka said. “He’s a tough competitor. He grinds it out, man. Even when you’re playing with him, it’s fun to watch him. Hopefully it stays that way.”

 

But in an interesting twist, Koepka later in the year said there was no rivalry with McIlroy at all.

 

“I’ve been out here for, what five years,” Koepka said prior to the CJ Cup in South Korea. “Rory hasn’t won a major since I’ve been on the PGA Tour. So I just don’t view it as a rivalry. I’m not looking at anybody behind me. I’m No. 1 in the world, I’ve got open road in front of me and I’m not looking in the rearview mirror, so I don’t see it as a rivalry.

 

“You know if the fans do (call it a rivalry), then that’s on them and it could be fun. Look I love Rory and he’s a great player and he’s fun to watch, but it’s just hard to believe there’s a rivalry in golf. I just don’t see it.”

 

Later that week, Koepka – who had offseason stem cell treatment on his left knee – aggravated the injury and withdrew from the tournament. He didn’t play again in the fall, and withdrew from the Presidents Cup.

 

McIlroy, meanwhile, was voted PGA Tour player of the year over Koepka on the strength of his victories at the Players Championship, the Canadian Open and the Tour Championship which also meant the FedEx Cup title and its $15-million payday.

 

Along the way, McIlroy had the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour and had nine top-5 finishes.

 

“Somewhat surprised, but very honored that my fellow players thought enough of my year to award me this honor again,” said McIlroy, who after winning the FedEx Cup at East Lake said he felt his efforts would not stand up to those put forth by Koepka.

 

To be sure, McIlroy, 30, had an exceptional year, one that is worthy of consideration.

 

Then there is Koepka: He won the CJ Cup in Korea last fall. He won the PGA Championship at Bethpage. And he won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic. He was top four in all majors, a feat accomplished just six other times by four players.

 

Let the debate rage.

 

Meanwhile, McIlroy added to his resume that after the PGA Tour season by playing six more times, with five more top-10 finishes, including a tie for third behind Woods at the Zozo Championship and a victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions. He then ended the year with a fourth-place finish at the DP World Tour Championship, the final event of the European Tour season.

 

That finish moved McIlroy closer to Koepka in the Official World Golf Ranking and sets up an interesting start to 2020 – whether Koepka likes it or not.

 

“I’ll look back at 2019 very fondly,” McIlroy said. “There’s been a lot of good golf played. Probably some of the most consistent golf. Four wins, 19 top-10s. It’s been a learning year as well. I learned some things that I want to take forward into (2020) as well. But first and foremost I’m looking to (time) off and reflect on everything and get myself ready.”

 

 

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Spring 2020