Time is a finite resource. We may try to deny that fact or suppress it, but it’s a truth that we must eventually reckon with.
For Rory McIlroy, coming face-to-face with that reality has resulted in one of the best seasons of his career. He added to his impressive trophy haul of 2019 with a win Sunday at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions. It was his fourth win in his last 15 starts, and third World Golf Championship.
McIlroy was a mop-topped phenom when he arrived on the PGA TOUR 10 years ago. Now his hair is closely cropped, and some grays peek out from under his Nike hat. He’s 30 now, passing that milestone this May. He knows every win adds to a resume that will get him in the World Golf Hall of Fame one day, so he wants to maximize his remaining opportunities to make history.
“I think maybe moreso than when I first came out on TOUR, I try 100% over every shot, because I realize I don’t have as much time left as I used to when I was 20,” McIlroy said. “Even if I’m having a bad day, I’m trying over every single shot. My concentration is better and my mental capacity on the golf course is much better than it ever has been, and I think that’s a big key to why I’m able to play consistently week-in, week-out.”
His performance at Sheshan International confirmed that his consistent play from last season has carried over to the 2020 season. McIlroy won the 2019 FedExCup and was named the PGA TOUR Player of the Year after winning three times and finishing in the top 10 in 74% of his starts. From a Strokes Gained perspective, it was the best season in the ShotLink era by a player not named Tiger Woods.
McIlroy’s FedExCup defense has started with a third-place finish at the ZOZO Championship and now his first WGC win since 2015. He had to work hard for the victory despite shooting the second-lowest score in tournament history and going bogey-free on the weekend. Last year’s champion, Xander Schauffele, may have been under the weather but it didn’t keep him from putting pressure on McIlroy until the final hole.
Schauffele trailed by two with four holes remaining, but birdied 15 and 18 to force extra holes.
“Xander pushed me the whole way, or all 73 holes we played together this week,” McIlroy said.
But McIlroy felt he had an advantage as soon as Schauffele pulled a piece of paper from Slugger White’s hat. Schauffele’s slip had a “2” written on it, indicating that he’d hit second in their sudden-death showdown.
“I knew that was the big moment because I could hit a drive down the fairway and put the pressure on him,” McIlroy said.
His driver has always been an asset, and that was the case on the first playoff hole. He hit a booming drive down the fairway, setting the stage for him to win another big title in 2019.
Schauffele’s tee shot found the rough and he had to lay up short of the lake in front of the green. McIlroy launched one of his sky-high long irons onto the green, then two-putted from 25 feet. Schauffele missed a 12-foot birdie putt to tie.
McIlroy and Schauffele were tied at 19-under 269 after regulation. Schauffele’s final-round 66 was just a stroke higher than Sunday’s best score. McIlroy shot a final-round 68 after opening with three consecutive 67s.
The win was McIlroy’s fourth in his last 15 starts.
“The four wins this year have been wonderful. THE PLAYERS Championship, RBC Canadian Open, THE TOUR Championship to win the FedExCup, big events,” McIlroy said. “But more than that, I think it is the consistency that I’m bringing week-in, week-out. Even if I don’t have my best stuff, at least give myself a chance.”
McIlroy moved to No. 1 in the FedExCup, though his reign atop the standings will likely be short-lived. He’s three points ahead of Houston Open champion Lanto Griffin, who starts the Bermuda Championship’s final round in 20th place.
No one has won back-to-back FedExCups, but McIlroy’s defense is off to a strong start. He’s also in a race with Tiger Woods to become the first three-time FedExCup champ. Woods, who won the ZOZO for his record-tying 82nd win, is 10th in the standings.
McIlroy has now finished in the top 10 in 16 of his last 21 starts on the PGA TOUR. He opened the 2019-20 season with a 2-over 72 in Japan. His highest score in the seven rounds since is 68. He’s 34 under in those seven rounds, making just eight bogeys in that span and averaging 66.3 strokes per round.
“Right now, the game feels pretty simple,” he said Saturday evening in Shanghai. “I know that it’s not going to feel like that all the time, but when it does, you have to take advantage of that feeling.”