Ben Everill / PGATOUR.COM
LAS VEGAS – Rory McIlroy left the Ryder Cup last month dejected at his efforts in the losing European side and took a long hard look in the mirror.
Usually in moments of reflection like this one doesn’t like what they see. But McIlroy realized what he could see was exactly what was missing. The problem was he’d been trying to be someone else.
So he vowed to go back to being Rory McIlroy. After all, he was the guy who had four majors and two FedExCups to his name among many other accolades. And it worked.
“There was a lot of reflection the last couple weeks and this is what I need to do. I just need to play golf, I need to simplify it, I need to just be me. For the last few months I was maybe trying to be someone else to try to get better and I sort of realized that being me is enough and being me, I can do things like this,” McIlroy said after joining the upper echelons of PGA TOUR history by becoming the 39th player to notch up 20 career wins.
On Sunday the 32-year-old joined Greg Norman, Hale Irwin, Doug Sanders and Johnny Revolta in a tie for 35th on the all-time win list after he won THE CJ CUP in Las Vegas, overtaking Rickie Fowler and outlasting a surging Collin Morikawa in Sunday’s final round at the Summit Club.
“I went out against Xander and all I wanted to do was win the point, right? That’s all I could do. Hadn’t done much else the rest of the week. I wasn’t trying to be perfect; I wasn’t trying to hit shots that I wasn’t comfortable hitting, I just went out there to try to win my match and I did,” McIlroy explained.
“I think part of the sort of emotion at the end of it was to do with that week, but it was also probably to do with the last few months in terms of searching to try to get better and sort of the realization that I don’t need to search for anything, it’s all right here.”
McIlroy’s 6-under 66 pushed him to 25 under for the tournament, one clear of Summit Club member and ambassador Morikawa who closed with a blistering 62. Third round leader Fowler (71) and second round leader Keith Mitchell (67) settled for a tie for third three shots off the pace.
The win was all but secured with an eagle putt from off the green on the par-5 14th hole, allowing McIlroy the luxury of playing safe on the way home.
As he sat with his 20th TOUR title secured post-round McIlroy felt extreme validation. He moved back into the world top 10 (from 14th to eighth) and has hit the ground running in the new FedExCup season by winning in his first start to move to fourth on the points list. But now he craves more.
“I know that when I do the things that I do well, this is what I’m capable of. I’m capable of winning a lot of events on the PGA TOUR and being the best player in the world,” McIlroy added.
“I’ve been close to starting my season with a win before, I think I finished second or third like eight times, so to get a win, it’s great. It feels really good, some validation of what I’ve done the last few weeks and just keep moving forward… I still want to get back to that point where I’m knocking off three, four, five wins a year.”
With 20 wins comes lifetime membership on the PGA TOUR, once you’ve played 15 seasons. For McIlroy that will become official at the beginning of the 2023-24 season.
“It’s pretty significant… not having to worry about minimums on TOUR and being able to really set a schedule, and especially at that point when kids will be getting into school age and maybe wanting to spend a little bit more time at home, that’s important,” McIlroy beamed.
“When you look to the bigger things in life, getting to that level, I can pick and choose where I play nowadays anyway, but that makes it even better and less of a burden.”
While it was a milestone day for McIlroy, it was a tough pill to swallow for Fowler. The American was looking for his first win in nearly 1000 days and things looked good when two early birdies padded his lead to three shots.
But a disastrous double bogey on the sixth hole pulled him back to the field and when McIlroy surged Fowler couldn’t keep pace with him. It was still his first top 10 finish since a T8 in May’s PGA Championship – his lone top-10 from last season.
“Obviously disappointed, but this is a big step in the right direction with where we’ve been in the last two years,” Fowler said. “It felt good to finally hit the golf ball properly, at least most of the time, for 72 holes. A lot of quality shots, a lot of good swings this week.”