Why substance, not flash, made 2019 the Year of Rory McIlroy

November 26, 2019

With last season’s PGA Tour campaign in the books (and the next already begun), finalists have emerged in the race for GOLF’s 2019 Player of the Year. Votes in the past have tipped in favor of one or two candidates. This year, there are four—all worthy and all with passionate supporters. And the POTY is …? Pick ’em. We’ll make our case for the four frontrunners and let you decide. Sean Zak already made his case for Brooks Koepka — now, Dylan Dethier introduces the second candidate:

The case for Rory McIlroy

When Rory McIlroy was presented with this season’s PGA Tour Player of the Year award, he admitted he hadn’t even voted for himself. Critics of his honor crowed that the Tour’s messaging had worked too well on its own players, who clearly viewed McIlroy’s Players win and FedEx Cup Championship with such reverence that they overshadowed Brooks Koepka’s top-four finish in every major. Others said that McIlroy’s win reeked of an obsession with money, which he made by the truckload. But none of that means McIlroy’s peers picked the wrong man. His year was a case study in consistent excellence marked by several well-timed exclamation points. This year became the Year of Rory.

McIlroy entered the 2018–19 PGA Tour season in need of a spark. His previous season was best characterized by final-pairing Sunday stumbles at the Masters (alongside eventual winner Patrick Reed) and the Tour Championship (alongside eventual winner Tiger Woods). The summer marked his 30th birthday and the five-year anniversary of his last major championship. He spoke openly of needing extra motivation.

McIlroy didn’t bag that fifth major this year, but he did just about everything else better than anyone else. Let’s review: Once the calendar flipped to 2019, McIlroy posted the following finishes: T4-T5-T4-2-T6-1. That “1” came at TPC Sawgrass, where the Northern Irishman held off the world’s very best to claim his biggest win in a half-decade. He followed that with three ho-hum top 10s in his next four starts (including the PGA Championship) before a surprising missed cut at the Memorial. Not to worry; he headed north to the RBC Canadian Open and blew the doors off the rest of the field with a 64-61 weekend and a statement seven-shot win.

After another top 10 at the U.S. Open, McIlroy headed across the pond to prep for Northern Ireland’s first Open Championship in 68 years. You know what happened: McIlroy succumbed to the weight of impossible expectations, sniping his very first tee shot out of bounds to set the tone for a very bad day.

But if there can be any triumph in a tournament favorite missing the cut, this was it: McIlroy’s opening 8 on Thursday (en route to a 79) reminded us of his fallibility; his valiant, unifying charge on Friday (en route to a 65) reminded us of his transcendent talent; and his tearful post-round interview reminded us just how much he poured into the effort. Even when McIlroy failed, he won.

Back stateside the following week, Koepka outplayed McIlroy in the final group in Memphis—advantage Brooks. All that was left were the FedEx Cup Playoffs, culminating in the final round of the new winner-take-all Tour Championship, where Koepka took a one-shot lead to the final round.

In some ways, the title of Player of the Year came down to Sunday at East Lake. With a win, Koepka would claim the Tour’s biggest prize despite a lackluster showing in non-majors. But his lead evaporated at No. 7, when the World No. 1 lost his tee shot and made double bogey while McIlroy stepped on the gas, pouring in a birdie putt for a three-shot swing. The rest was history: McIlroy iced the tournament with birdies at 12 and 13 while Koepka bogeyed 12-13-14. Last laugh to Rory.

Take a closer look; the numbers speak for themselves. In 21 Tour events, Koepka finished with three wins and nine top 10s. In 19 Tour events, McIlroy finished with three wins and 14 top 10s. He had two missed cuts and no other finishes worse than T21. (Koepka had 11 such finishes.) McIlroy also led the Tour in scoring average, and led in Strokes Gained in historic fashion. In the last 15 years, Tiger Woods owns the top three seasons in Strokes Gained. McIlroy’s 2019 ranks fourth.

That’s an appropriately big-picture way to see this, too: In terms of transcendent greatness, Rory McIlroy is the closest thing golf has gotten since peak Tiger. From 2011 through 2015, his very best golf was stupefyingly dominant. Yet 2019 was probably his most complete year to date.

McIlroy may not have voted for himself, but he did have a couple other impartial voices on his side. “In consistency, Rory has outplayed Brooks by a mile in how he’s done the entire year,” admitted 2017 Player of the Year Justin Thomas after the Tour Championship. Dustin Johnson, famous friend of Koepka’s and the 2016 winner of the same award, leaned toward McIlroy.

“I think just winning the FedEx Cup right at the end of the year is what pushed Rory over the edge,” he said. He’s right.

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