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.”
Rory McIlroy believes it is just a “matter of time” before Tommy Fleetwood wins his maiden PGA Tour title after his Ryder Cup team-mate claimed a share of the lead on day one of the Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Fleetwood birdied six of his last nine holes in an inward half of 30, just one shot outside the tournament record, to set an imposing clubhouse target of seven under par which was matched only by former US PGA champion Keegan Bradley.
Korea’s Ben An and American Brian Harman are a shot off the lead on six under, with McIlroy, Vaughn Taylor and Ryan Moore a stroke further back, Moore’s 67 including a spectacular hole-in-one on the iconic par-three 17th.
McIlroy’s good early-season form continued with a bogey-free round while Tiger Woods is two under par following an erratic 70 which included six birdies, four bogeys and just one par on the back nine.
Fleetwood started from the 10th and managed just one birdie in his first nine holes, but then picked up shots on the first, second and fifth and finished with a hat-trick of birdies from the seventh.
“I played really well all day apart from I hit a poor tee shot on 14 and got away with it,” Fleetwood told Sky Sports.
“And then on 16, the par five, I hit a poor second and I was a bit frustrated at that point because I had a lot of chances from 15 feet and didn’t make any. It just shows you, stay patient and things can happen.
“The course doesn’t make you feel very comfortable at all, you are always a semi-bad shot from struggling to make par. It’s one of the courses that’s the ultimate test in golf.
“I’ve played well here in the past and if I drive it well that’s a massive key for me. Driving is a strength for me normally and if you put it in play all the time in general you have a big advantage.”
Fleetwood finished seventh at Sawgrass last year and third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, when Ryder Cup partner Francesco Molinari stormed through the field with a closing 64 to win his second PGA Tour title.
“I’m trying to keep up,” Fleetwood joked. “It’s hard these days but I’m trying my best. It’s clearly the next step for me to win over here but winning’s not easy and I’ve got to keep plodding away, do the right things and focus on myself.
“It’s a good time to be coming into form. It’s been different this year because I’ve been used to starting so fast but I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of good things and sometimes you just need a rhythm of shooting good scores and that seems like it’s coming.”
McIlroy has no doubt Fleetwood will taste victory in the United States sooner rather than later, adding: “He is one of the best players in the world, and he’s had his chances already. So, yes, I think it’s only a matter of time for sure.”
McIlroy was frustrated not to birdie the par-five ninth, his final hole, after his approach hit a sprinkler head and flew over the green into the crowd, but he was happy to find that the change in date from May to March meant the conditions were more conducive to aggressive play.
“Over the last 10 years it’s been irons off tees and really trying to plot your way around the golf course, I hit drivers on holes today where I would never have the last few years,” McIlroy, who has finished in the top six in all five starts in 2019, told reporters.
“Even when you are aggressive and you miss, it’s a touch easier to get yourself back into position. The rough isn’t as long or as gnarly and when you miss the greens you are not having to contend with that Bermuda (grass) and guess how it’s going to come out.”
England’s Matt Fitzpatrick will take a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.
Fitzpatrick, 24, is chasing his first PGA Tour win and, after back-to-back 70s in the opening two rounds, posted five birdies and dropped no shots in a 67 on Saturday to move to nine under par.
That is one clear of last year’s winner McIlroy, whose 66 saw him shoot up the leaderboard and firmly into contention at Bay Hill.
The Northern Irishman started the day seven shots behind Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley but birdied four of his first six holes and three of the last four.
It was reminiscent of McIlroy’s form 12 months ago, when eight birdies from his last 13 holes earned him victory.
That remains his last win, although he has finished in the top five in each of his last four events.
He said of his round on pgatour.com: “Just what I needed. It’s really tough out there, difficult conditions.
“I was more in control of my golf ball today, I hit more fairways, and because of that I gave myself more birdie chances and I converted a few of them. So I did everything I needed to do today to get myself back in the golf tournament and (I’m) excited to have another chance tomorrow.”
Both Bradley and Fleetwood struggled. The American bogeyed four of the first five holes and eventually signed for a 75 to drop into a tie for sixth, while Fleetwood’s day was even worse.
The Englishman did not manage a birdie until the 18th while bogeying the second, eighth and 15th and double-bogeying the 10th in a 76, leaving him four shots off the lead.
A strong English presence at the top of the leaderboard was completed by Matt Wallace, who is in a tie for third on seven under alongside Australia’s Aaron Baddeley and American Kevin Kisner.