Tour Confidential: Are Rory McIlroy’s Sunday struggles officially behind him?

March 18, 2019

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Rory McIlroy’s Players Championship victory, Jim Furyk’s Hall-of-Fame credentials, Jon Rahm’s final-round struggles and more.

1. Just last week in this space, after yet another near-miss from Rory McIlroy, we debated what’s holding him back from PGA Tour win No. 15. Well, on Sunday he closed with a two-under 70 to clip Jim Furyk by one and win the Players Championship. Did you see enough today to assure you that McIlroy’s Sunday struggles are behind him?

Sean Zak, assistant editor (@sean_zak): I might normally be inclined to point out he only had to shoot 70 to win, but on that golf course and with that finishing stretch, he pulled off all the shots he needed to and in impressive fashion. Does it mean he’ll close his next opportunity? No, doesn’t mean that.

Dylan Dethier, associate editor (@Dylan_Dethier): Like Zak, the devil on my shoulder wants me to point out that “holding off a charging Jim Furyk” doesn’t typically define greatness these days. But that would just be trolling; this was a sensational performance from Rory, who battled back from bad starts on Saturday and Sunday and dropped the hammer when he needed it most with really, really good iron shots on 15, 16, 17 and 18.

Josh Sens, contributor (@JoshSens): It was good to see Rory steady himself after that double at the fourth, when it was starting to look like a deja vu Sunday for him. But more than long-term evidence of anything Rory-related, the round was a reminder of how many things have to go right to win against a stacked field. The biggest guns around McIlroy (Day, Rahm and Fleetwood) all had off days. If any of those three had played anywhere near their potential, we could have easily been talking about another close call for Rory.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Yes. For sure. He won.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): We were paired with Rory the first two rounds, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen anyone drive a golf ball like he did. Little or no curve, long, high, and accurate. I thought he would be extremely tough to beat if that continued. Well, it really didn’t over the weekend, but he found other ways to get it done. And in the end, that’s ALL that matters. He got it done. And when he needed them most, he came up with huge drives on 16 and 18 to seal the deal. And best of all…when it was his turn to play, he did it quickly and confidently. There was no indecision or wavering.

2. McIlroy joins Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to notch 15 PGA Tour wins and four major titles before the age of 30. Does McIlroy get enough credit for what he has accomplished thus far in his career?

Zak: Hell no, but mainly because his years 26-29.9 have lacked in defining victories. Sure Bay Hill 2018 was fun (but we cared more about Tiger) and the Tour Championship in 2016 was fun (but we cared more about Hazeltine a week later…and Arnold Palmer passing the day prior). Not only that, but he’s come up short at majors. So no, he doesn’t get enough credit for being the prospective Best European Player Ever, BUT he hasn’t earned a place without ridicule either.

Dethier: Depends how you define credit, I guess. He certainly commands our attention! But I’d wearied of the grousing about what was “wrong” with Rory during this latest stretch of top-fives. That showed good form more than it showed something missing. For that reason alone, I’m glad that he won.

Sens: He’s come under a fair amount of critical scrutiny, but that also comes with the territory when you’re among three or four best at what you do in the world.  What he does is play golf for a living, and I’d say he gets more than enough credit for that. When he splits the atom, we can start talking about how unsung he is.

Bamberger: Yes. Credit these days is by electronic deposit. Plus, I’m always singing his praises, as golfer and man. So he has that going for him.

Wood:  I don’t think he does.  I read and hear a lot more about what Rory hasn’t done than what he has done, which is more than anyone else of his generation of players (Spieth is very close.).  Four majors, fifteen wins and now a Players Championship. That’s a damn fine career. And he’s obviously not close to done.

3. Jim Furyk, 48(!), ranks 212th in driving distance on Tour (272 yards), yet shot 67 on Sunday and finished just a shot behind Rory at TPC Sawgrass. With 17 PGA Tour wins, including a U.S. Open title, Furyk was already a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. Does this runner-up finish help his case?

Zak: Nah. You don’t gain Hall of Fame points with second-place finishes in non-major events. Read that again: non-major events. It sure was fun to see what ol’ man Furyk still has in his bag — that 7-iron on 18 was tasty — but we’ll remember what Rory did for his career today. Not Jim.

Dethier: Hall of Fame credit? I dunno. But as far as losing to Europeans goes, this was definitely a more impressive second place than when his team finished runner-up at the Ryder Cup.

Sens: Nah. On the day they start giving Hall credit for second-place finishes, they’ll have to change the name to the Hall of the Very, Very Good.

Bamberger: I’d like to see him win a senior major or two. He’s close. He needs more.

Wood: I don’t think this runner-up helps his case, but I’m of the opinion that his case doesn’t need helping to make him a member of the Hall of Fame. If Ken Venturi (14 wins, 1 major), Ian Woosnam (1 major, 1 other PGA Tour Win, and yes, a lot of European victories), Colin Montgomerie (zero majors, zero wins in the U.S.) and Isao Aoki are in the Hall of Fame, and they are, I just checked, then it’s just silly to think about keeping Jim Furyk out. Seventeen wins, a major, a Fedex Cup championship, and the only golfer to ever shoot a 58 and 59 in Tour events. He’s in.

There have been other mega-talents that needed years to grow up.

4. Jon Rahm, who shot a third-round 64 to grab a share of the 54-hole lead, posted a disappointing 76 on Sunday to finish five back of McIlroy in a tie for 12th. Overall, was Rahm’s week a sign that he is primed to win a major — or not so primed?

Zak: Does primed to win a major mean “soon to win a major?” Because I don’t think he’ll win soon. I think he’ll win one, just not this year. The golf course and his swing dealt him a tricky hand today and he completely balked at it. I think major championship courses do that to you over four rounds. Until he proves that he can handle that without losing his mind, I’ll have a hard time believing in his major-winning chances. Of course, I tweeted about this and many people replied with “He’s just showing a little fire!” Okay, Charizard.

Dethier: Rahm is intensely aware of his own passion and emotion, even as he expresses it and simultaneously tries to contain it. “It’s very hard to constantly battle that and try to play good golf,” he said after the round. That’s telling. His game has always been wildly impressive, which means he could win any week; this week didn’t show that he’s any closer to catching a big one, though.

Sens: Is it uncool of me to admit that I had to Google “Charizard”? It all comes down to how Rahm chooses to look at it, and based on the way he’s been talking lately, I think he’ll look at it in a productive way. Meaning, it was a learning experience that he’ll be able to draw on next time he’s in the mix in a big one. Which won’t be long from now.

Bamberger: There have been other mega-talents that needed years to grow up. Arnold, for instance. He might get there. But he might not. He’ll win now and again on talent and length alone. Gary Woodland does, too.

Wood: Everyone out here is primed to win a major, but that’s not winning a major.

5. A mix of long- and short-hitters, big-name players and up-and-comers contended at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium course, a design that has never lacked for drama. Dare we ask, is Sawgrass worthy of hosting an actual major?

Zak: I suppose it is? But it won’t? The Players isn’t a major and none of the majors is going to host their event there…so…cool question?

Bamberger: Good place for U.S. Am. Good course for Ryder Cup (that would never happen) or Presidents Cup. Not a U.S. Open course by any means. Too…TPCish.

Dethier: Maybe a Ryder Cup — but only if the U.S. wants to lose.

Sens: I agree with Michael that it’s not a U.S. Open venue. But as a thorough examination, as they say, it’s up there with any number of courses that have hosted majors in recent years. It certainly makes for more compelling competitions than some venues which, either by virtue of design or setup, all but eliminate a good portion of the field before play even begins.

Wood: I am not one to deliver a long harangue about The Players Championship becoming a major, but I can tell you this: The buzz, the electricity, the nerves and pre-tournament chatter inside the ropes makes TPC as much if not more of a major than the PGA Championship. That’s not a knock on the PGA at all, I love the PGA Championship. But the Players has a combination of a great golf course (there’s not anything resembling a bad hole amongst the 18), the best field in golf, and an incredible stretch of finishing holes that ALWAYS provides drama. I don’t think it should host a major. The Players Championship is its own fantastic entity.

6. Biggest surprise of the week? And biggest bust?

Zak: Brooks Koepka being down 20 pounds. I would not have guessed that. Biggest bust was Furyk electing to pitch out from the edge of the hazard on 18 Saturday. He made bogey and perhaps he’s thinking he should have tried a fuller swing.

Dethier: Wow, that’s a great call. It’s rare that I’ve rooted so hard for something as James Michael Furyk to attempt that shot and plunge into Lake Sawgrass on his followthrough. My biggest surprise was whatever the heck Rahm tried to do from the bunker on No. 11. (A 220-yard hook around a tree, over water, out of the sand from a bad lie? Pass.) Biggest bust goes to Jason Day, who I was expecting to rally but just never quite showed up Sunday en route to a forgettable T8.

Bamberger: Furyk’s Sunday.

Sens: Furyk. Did anyone see that coming? For biggest bust, I’ll go with Rahm’s decision to try to rope a hook around the trees from the sand with his approach on 11. That was an entirely unforced error that led to a bogey on a birdie hole. It rightly set Rahm’s caddie shaking his head and Rahm muttering to himself.

Wood: Biggest surprise was Furyk, for all the reasons above. It was an awesome, emotional performance. Biggest bust, and this includes Furyk, is that no one has ever fallen into one of those lakes during the round. They’re everywhere. You’d figure it would happen eventually, either on a shot like Furyk’s or by someone just losing a little focus staring in their yardage book while walking down the fairway. Trust me, it enters my mind, and then looking at the high bulkheads, I wonder, how the hell would you get out?