CHARLOTTE, NC – In the world of the golf pandemic, golf without a spectator has often felt like a beach with no sun.
For Rory McIlroy, the return of living, breathing souls along the ropes, behind tee boxes, and surrounding greens – very slowly but getting bigger every week – was possibly as important as clearing up the problems in his game.
Some of these persist, but the doubts about winning do not.
Boosted by the anecdotally largest number of viewers to attend a PGA Tour event since golf returned nearly a year ago, McIlroy negotiated a wobbly final hole in Quail Hollow to claim his first title in nearly 18 months.
It was his third win at the Wells Fargo Championship – where he celebrated his first PGA Tour win in 2010 – and the 19th of his PGA Tour career. And it could have come with the greatest exhalation and the greatest relief.
“It’s never easy,” said the 32-year-old McIlroy afterwards. “It felt like a long time since that win in China.” The world is a different place than it used to be.
“And a lot has changed for me. I’m a father now, and breaking the drought and winning again here is something special.”
McIlroy was close to tears after that, and that says something for a man who never seemed so far away but had nonetheless taken the tumble since ranked No. 1 in the world in early 2020.
That was a pre-pandemic. McIlroy was the first to admit he hasn’t been the same since returning from a 13-week stalemate last year. He remained number 1 when the game of golf resumed but slipped to 15th place this week – his lowest place in the official world rankings since 2009. He is now seventh.
“It’s great to play in front of these people again,” said McIlroy. “When we got back from the pandemic.” [break]I thought I would enjoy the quiet a little. But I’ve learned that I need that. I feed on the energy so much. The crowd was great all week. I really believe they helped me. ”
While shooting rounds of 72-66-68-68 to defeat Abraham Ancer with one punch and Victor Hovland and Keith Mitchell with two, Mcllroy did not do so in the conventional way.
McIlroy’s strength has always been the driving force and there is still a lot to be done in this area. He talked earlier in the week about trying to hit the tee with a consistent left-right fade – one where he often hooked the ball into the rough instead.
The four-time major champion hit only 3 of 14 fairways on Sunday and only 19 of 56 during the week. And no miss was more terrifying than the one at the 18th hole, where he hooked his tee shot into a hill and saw him almost step into the water.
Finding the ball unplayable, McIlroy dropped a penalty and then hit an 8-iron 196 yards from the green. It led to his only bogey of the day. Still, two putts were enough for a satisfactory win.
His last win came at the 2019 WGC HSBC Champions in China, part of a run that saw him finish in the top 5 in seven consecutive tournaments up to the 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
That was the last tournament before the pandemic shut down. When McIlroy came back, he only had three top 10 finishes for the rest of the year and was never seriously controversial.
It was more of the same this year after a promising start in Abu Dhabi, where he finished third. He missed the cut at the Players Championship and Masters and didn’t make it to the weekend of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
“Rory is an energetic guy who needs the energy the crowds bring,” said friend Graeme McDowell. “And I think he missed that.” It was a strange time for everyone. ”
Before the Masters, McIlroy also perked up new eyes. Then came veteran trainer Pete Cowen, who has worked with several players including Henrik Stenson, Brooks Koepka, McDowell, Woodland and Padraig Harrington.
“Ferraris need servicing,” said Cowen. “Great art needs to be purified.” Great timepieces need to be wound. (There was) not long wrong (with McIlroy). “
While McIlroy’s driving accuracy was poor, he was second on the field on strokes brought from tee to green and tenth on strokes approaching the green. He hit 14 out of 18 greens on the regular Sunday and 54 out of 72 during the week, both exceptional numbers.
And he putted well. Often times the aspect holding McIlroy back was his putting good enough to finish third on the field. He had 29 putts in each round.
“I have followed Rory’s career since he was 15 and have dominated the Irish amateur scene and wherever he has been and where he is now … all professional golfers, all of us, ebb and flow in and out of shape,” Paul McGinley from Ireland, the 2014 Ryder Cup captain said: “It doesn’t matter who it is – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods. And it happened to Rory. Just 17 months ago, he was number one on the road to FedEx profit [Cup].
“He’s an inspiring player. Where does it come from? Sometimes it comes from a fall in the world rankings. Or maybe a new putting idea. Or another ball flight. All of these things trigger a deluge of shapes.”
As it turns out, McIlroy’s motivation may simply be down to the noise outside the ropes.
“I’m definitely glad the crowd was back and I’m glad I got the job done in such an atmosphere today,” he said playing in front of such crowds. It was just a great experience to feel that again over the weekend. ”
Next up is the PGA Championship on Kiawah Island, where McIlroy won the second of his four main titles in 2012 with eight strokes. It’s been a lifetime in terms of golf, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to go back to a place where it was previously successful.
More importantly, he joins the big championship with a recent success.
“It’s definitely great timing,” he said. “Obviously this is a huge confidence boost when you know that my game is closer than it is before.” I’ll be able to poke holes in everything I’ve done today. It is certainly far from perfect, but this is confirmation that I am on the right track. ”