Rory McIlroy Is Peaking Just in Time for the Ryder Cup

September 26, 2016

ATLANTA, Ga.—The clubhead twirled.

When the best player in the world does that on his follow-through, that means it’s a good shot. I mean, really good. Like, this-tournament-is-over-good.

At least that’s what it meant when Tiger Woods did the twirling. Rory McIlroy performed the Tiger Twirl, consciously or unconsciously, when it mattered most Sunday afternoon at the Tour Championship.

He got it right. McIlroy’s stunning approach shot landed on the 18th green and stopped six feet away, leaving McIlroy an eagle putt for a playoff victory and, oh yeah, a $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, while opponents Kevin Chappell and Ryan Moore played the par-5 hole more traditionally and laid up.

It was the shot of the tournament, or would have been had McIlroy made that putt. It rimmed out. Three playoff holes later, McIlroy finally disposed of the pesky Moore and poured in a winning birdie putt.

Everything we need to know about this week’s Ryder Cup, and maybe the pending 2017 golf season, we just learned at East Lake Golf Club.

Rory McIlroy is ready. That is not good news for the American squad, as heartening as it was to see the underrated Moore push him to the limit.

McIlroy said all that mattered before the 18th green award ceremony and that super-sized payday.

“I played really well,” he said. “I feel like my game is coming together at the right time. Two wins in the last three—that’s pretty nice.”

In the bigger picture, and it’s not going to get any bigger until this week’s Ryder Cup is behind us, this recent return to form looms gigantic. It’s not just the two FedEx Cup event wins, or the Irish Open victory this summer. It is the way McIlroy is playing. He resembles the old Rory who, with apologies to the Masters, kinda-sorta-almost resembles Tiger Woods.

You saw it Sunday afternoon here. McIlroy played shots that no one else could. Well, certainly not shots that Moore or Chappell had in their arsenals.

The shot of the day might have come at the 16th hole in regulation, a par-4 where McIlroy’s approach landed six feet from the hole, took one big hop, then one small hop and politely toppled into the cup for an eagle. The shot was a stunner, and it vaulted him into a tie for second with Moore, one stroke behind Chappell.

Judging by Rory’s reaction, he had just won the Ryder Cup’s clinching point. He really, really wanted to win this thing for a lot of reasons – which surely had nothing to do with those 10 million obvious reasons.

Then came that beauty at the 18th, the first playoff hole, and that twirl. Moore made a clutch birdie putt to stay alive but Rory was on.

They played the 18th a second time and McIlroy did it again. He had a not-so-great lie in the left Bermuda rough, a tree in his way and a finger of water on his intended target line. Moore had a terrible lie in the left rough and had to pitch out. McIlroy went for it, swinging out of his shoes with a long iron. He had to made good contact, keep it low enough to stay under the tree but carry it far enough to clear the water. He pulled it off. Again, a shot that he and few others could do.

That shot didn’t decide anything but it reminded us, maybe for the first time since McIlroy won that PGA Championship at Valhalla in the dark two years ago, just how good he is and how good he can be.

Nobody on the American side is going to want a piece of McIlroy at Hazeltine this week. Well, Moore would probably like a couple of rematches… maybe.

What McIlroy did here Sunday was put his name back in the Best Player in the World conversation. We had the Big Three a year ago—Rory plus Jordan Spieth and Jason Day. None of them won a major this year. Spieth never quite got on top of his driver or his tee-to-green game, although he won twice, and Day was close to a banner season with three wins but got edged at the PGA, then had back problems that ended with him withdrawing here in the second round.

Saturday night, a lot of golf experts might have conceded the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup and the world No. 1 ranking to Dustin Johnson, your U.S. Open champ and your official Player of the Year after Day’s WD. Johnson shot 73 on Sunday, the highest score of anybody in the field. But he still would have won the $10 million if either Moore or Chappell had captured the Tour Championship.

But that ascent to No. 1? Whether Day has any long-term back issues or not, the race to No. 1 just became a lot more difficult.

Rory McIlroy is back. It’s good for golf, it’s good for us and mostly, it’s good for Europe heading into Hazeltine. Twirl away, gentlemen.