Rory McIlroy celebrated St Patrick’s Day in brilliant style with victory in the prestigious Players Championship after a thrilling final round at Sawgrass.
After proving his critics wrong by joining Sandy Lyle as the only British winners of the so-called “fifth major”, McIlroy will take renewed confidence into his bid to win a genuine fifth major title at the Masters to complete the career grand slam.
McIlroy recovered from an early double bogey to card a closing 70 and finish 16 under par, one shot ahead of former Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, who had threatened to become the oldest winner in tournament history.
Furyk set the clubhouse target with a 67 that included two birdies in the last three holes, the 48-year-old – who is less than a month older than 2005 champion Fred Funk – hitting a brilliant approach to just three feet at the last.
However, McIlroy bounced back from a bogey on the 14th with birdies at the next two holes to move back into the lead and safely negotiated the treacherous 17th and 18th to secure a 15th PGA Tour title after starting the season with five consecutive top-six finishes.
McIlroy told Sky Sports: “It’s very special. I just tried to treat it like any other day. Even though I’ve had all those close calls this year, they didn’t mean anything.
“If anything they were good for me, I called them ‘remote misses’, it gives you even more hope to go forward and go again. I think all those experiences this year led me to this point and ultimately they were good for me because it got me over the line today.
“The birdie on 12 was huge to give me a bit of momentum and the final few holes were tough. To get that birdie on 15 after the dropped shot on 14 was massive.
“I knew 16 was a good chance and to par the last two holes and hit three good shots when I needed to, that gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”
The victory comes just weeks before McIlroy will attempt to win the Masters and become only the sixth player to complete a career grand slam.
The 29-year-old Northern Irishman added: “If I hadn’t have won today I would have said I don’t need a win going into Augusta, but it’s very nice to get a win, especially doing it on this golf course, honestly a golf course that played a little bit similar to the way Augusta will play in a few weeks’ time.
“I can take a lot from this. It’s taken me a few weeks to get to this point but I feel like I’m playing some of the best golf of my life right now and I just need to keep going with it and keep doing the same things.”
On his tournament debut, England’s Eddie Pepperell shared third place with Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas on 14 under, both players holing improbable birdie putts on the 17th in matching rounds of 66.
“I actually thought it was going to miss low until right at the end and I was pretty excited,” Pepperell said. “I said to Mick (Doran, his caddie), that may be the highlight of my career – I hope I don’t peak too early.
“Honestly I felt like I swung the club terrible today. I kept hitting it right with my 3-wood, which is the club I bank on and I was useless with that.
“My irons I was hitting pretty well and the last six holes around the greens I was on fire – I felt like Seve (Ballesteros) out there to be fair.”
Compatriot Tommy Fleetwood, who began the day in joint second with McIlroy, gave himself an outside chance of forcing a play-off with his Ryder Cup team-mate with an eagle on the 16th, only to promptly hit his tee shot on the 17th into the water.
And overnight leader Jon Rahm also found the water on the same hole on his way to a final round of 76 that left the Spaniard in a tie for 12th.
Tiger Woods saved his best round of the week until last with a 69 and also believes he is in good shape ahead of the Masters.
“It’s right on track,” Woods said. “I’m able to shape the ball both ways, which I’m going to need there. I just need a few more putts to go in, but that’s it.”
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