Rory McIlroy, the Boy Wonder from Holywood, Northern Ireland, has seen his fair share of adversity during his illustrious career, which is far from over but destined to include admission into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
He hoped he could take back his words. Adversity off the beaten path put his grit to the test. There are a few slumps here and there. An ankle injury sustained while playing futbol cost him the opportunity to compete in the Open Championship on golf’s holiest ground, the rumpled landscape of St. Andrews, the Home of Golf.
However, one of the most significant challenges he faced occurred in early 2020.
Until the COVID-19 worldwide epidemic rocked the planet off its axis, the four-time major champion and became world No. 1 was in full flight. Before the pandemic took hold in the United States, McIlroy had four top-five results in his first four starts of 2020 and was easily the best player on the planet.
Following the PGA Tour’s 13-week sabbatical as the country sought to regain its feet, McIlroy lost his balance and was unable to reclaim his best step and top form.
He thought he’d treasure the quiet of the tournaments when they started in June 2020, with fans barred owing to COVID-19 limitations, but the silence threw him off, and his game followed suit.
“When we got back, I thought I’d like the peace and quiet, but I missed the throng,” he added. “I get a lot of energy from it.”
The peace, it turned out, had put him in an uneasy and irritating slumber of impatience, apathy, annoyance, and a terrible war with his swing. When the PGA Tour returns in June 2020, he will have played in 22 tournaments, with zero victories and a small number of significant Sundays.
McIlroy decided he needed to walk away from the game after missing the cut in the 2021 Masters, which came after Friday trunk slams in The Players Championship and Genesis Invitational. He took three weeks off.
He didn’t, in fact, take three weeks off. He hired famed swing instructor Pete Cowen while staying with longstanding coach Michael Bannon to assist him go through swing concerns while he was at home in his Florida compound. McIlroy said he worked hard during his three weeks away from the PGA Tour and was pleased with his iron play. And he chose to hit fades with his strongest weapon rather of his old bread-and-butter draw with the driver.
And he was looking forward to his upcoming vacation to the Queen City. McIlroy made his comeback at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., one of his favorite events played on one of his favorite courses in one of his favorite towns.
In 2010, he broke his PGA Tour maiden on the difficult Quail Hollow Club layout, punctuating his victory with a 60-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole, and in 2015, he became the tournament’s only double winner. Prior to the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship, he previously lost in a playoff in 2012 and has four other top ten finishes in nine starts.
He remarked, “This location has been nice to me.” “I’ve loved this golf course since the first time I saw it, and that love has been reciprocated in certain ways.” Over the years, I’ve done so well here.”
Despite falling to 15th in the official world golf rankings, his lowest position in more than 12 years, doubts about his game (he hadn’t played on the weekend in two months), and the second-longest winless streak of his career (he hadn’t won since the 2019 HSBC Champions in China), McIlroy arrived in Charlotte in good spirits.
Everything was fine until it wasn’t.
McIlroy is suffering from neck problems.
On Wednesday, when he concluded his practice swing on the driving range, McIlroy’s neck locked up. He got a late tee time for Thursday’s first round by the grace of the golf gods, enabling him, he hoped, ample time to obtain therapy that would relieve the discomfort.
But when he stepped up to the tee for the first round, McIlroy was only hoping to make it to the weekend and get more reps in his quest to reclaim his old self. His neck ache had eased, and he shot a 1-over-par 71 in the first round.
For the first time in two months, he not only made it to the weekend, but his second-round 66 also put him on the top page of the leaderboard. His third-round 68 put him in the last group on Sunday, with Keith Mitchell, who had a two-stroke lead and was chasing his second PGA Tour victory after winning the Honda Classic in 2019.
Mitchell made it three with a birdie on the first hole. McIlroy, on the other hand, birdied the third and shared the lead with a birdie on the seventh. To move up two strokes, he holed a 10-foot par putt on the par-3 13th, then got up-and-down for birdies on the reachable par-4 14th and par-5 15th with great bunker shots.
Then he made it through the final hole.
“Winning out here is never easy,” McIlroy said approximately 90 minutes later.
McIlroy got a little ahead of himself on the 16th tee, with his two-shot lead. He was thinking about how amazing it would be to celebrate his triumph on Mother’s Day with his wife, Erica, and their 8-month-old daughter, Poppy, who were in attendance at Quail Hollow Club.
The Green Mile then jolted him back to reality. That’s the moniker for Quail Hollow Club’s punishing three-hole finishing stretch, a 1,190-yard stretch of agony that includes the water-guarded par-4 16th, par-3 17th, and par-4 18th.
He made pars on the 16th and 17th holes and stood on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead — 494 yards from his wife and daughter, his first victory in nearly 550 days, and a heavy dose of relief and confidence.
The best option appears to be a penalty.
McIlroy froze as he unleashed his tee shot with his driver in hand. His drive was aimed left, towards the lengthy, twisting creek that runs nearly the entire length of the hole and has been the scene of numerous wrecked scorecards.
The ball stayed out of the water but ended up in a dreadful lay in the thick rough. McIlroy’s heart began to race as he saw his ball and began to consider his best choices. He pondered hitting the ball from where it lay, but it was well below his feet and nearly buried in a thicket of noxious grass. Harry Diamond, his caddie, stepped in at that point.
He proposed taking a penalty drop to get a better lie, which would involve hitting his third shot but give his boss a better chance to knock the ball onto the fat section of the green from 200 yards with an 8-iron and then two-putt for the win.
McIlroy made the right decision. He took the drop, hit the ball onto the green, and two-putted from 44 feet for his third victory of the tournament — no one else had more than one.
McIlroy remarked, “Harry has been there every step of the way.” “He’s been with me every step of the way through the tough portions that I’ve had to go through over the last few months, and it’s good to come through it with him and get back into the winner’s circle.”
“Harry was incredible out there, especially with that last decision. ‘Let’s take a step back, let’s think about this, where’s the best position you’re hitting your third from?’ he said as I was about to get in there and try to play that with a lob wedge. So he calmed me down and slowed me down a bit, saying,
‘Pal, let’s think about this for a minute.’
Erica’s Mother’s Day present
McIlroy finished at 10-under 274 for a one-shot victory over Abraham Ancer, thanks to a final-round 68. Mitchell came in second, along with Viktor Hovland. It was McIlroy’s first three-time victory in a tournament. It was his 19th PGA Tour victory and his 27th overall. It was also his first time as a father.
Shortly after his victory putt dropped, McIlroy saluted his mother, Rose, as well as his wife and kid.
“For Erica to be here with Poppy on her first Mother’s Day is really, really great,” he remarked. “It was tough not to think about that coming down the last few holes, and how awesome it would be to see them at the back of the 18th green, but I had other things on my mind at the moment, so it was very easy to keep it out of my head.” It’s fantastic that they’re here and that we can celebrate today.”
McIlroy was also pleased to see the roars back to golf. He was serenaded with loud yells of “Rory! Rory! Rory!” after completing play on the 18th hole.
“It had been a long time since I had won.” “It’s really fantastic,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of effort.” I’ve lowered my head and avoided looking in either way, concentrating solely on the task at hand. For a few months, it looked like all of my hard work was going nowhere, that I wasn’t getting much out of it.
“I think (Cowen) deserves a lot of credit for that.” Obviously, Michael Bannon is the one who has gotten me to this stage, so I’ll never mention Pete without mentioning Michael, who deserves a lot of credit as well. Pete and I put in some nice work in Florida last week, and I was feeling good about my game going in here, but I wasn’t expecting to win first week out again. It’s encouraging to see the hard effort paying off, but this is only the beginning.
“In the game, there’s so much more I want to accomplish and so much more I want to do.” But, as I have stated, this is wonderful confirmation that I’m on the right route.”
After the round, the defeated Mitchell paid appreciation to McIlroy.
“It was a lot of pleasure playing in the last group with Rory,” he remarked. “It just goes to show how good he is as a player because he didn’t play his best today and still won, which is why he has so many majors and wins.”
“Watching it is impressive because he had to fight there today.”
McIlroy, 33, was still fighting as further conflicts arose. Later same year, he won his 20th PGA Tour championship, earning him lifelong membership on the circuit. However, due to his immense talent and drive, he will have to wait until after the 2022-2023 season to receive membership; a player must play 15 full seasons on the PGA Tour to qualify.
But it was at The Summit in Las Vegas that he said he realized he didn’t have to play flawlessly to win on the PGA Tour. That he was going to be himself – which, based on his track record, is the envy of almost everyone.
He’s at ease in his own skin, and he’s back inside the gallery ropes as more battles loom. Completing the career Grand Slam is one of the big questions he wants to answer. Since winning his second PGA Championship in 2014, he’s been asked if he wants to join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win the Masters.
Until he wins a green jacket, the questions will continue. But he’s up to the challenge. He’s at a terrific spot in his life, and when he finally retires in 2021, he’ll look back on the Wells Fargo Championship as a pivotal event.
“I needed this to bring out the best in me,” he declared on the day of his victory.