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McIlroy shows he still knows how to close

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy leaves Pebble Beach with some unanswered questions.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Nine years ago this month, Jack Nicklaus sat with a 20-year-old child prodigy who was winless on the PGA Tour, and preached patience. Soon after, Rory McIlroy shot a final-round 62 at the Quail Hollow Championship to earn his first Tour title.

McIlroy's final-round 70 for a one-stroke victory Sunday over Jim Furyk at the Players Championship wasn't quite as scintillating, but it could be just as important as McIlroy sets his sights on even bigger prizes in the months to come (scores).

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Rory McIlroy

"I came here as a 19-year-old in 2009, missing the cut and getting kicked out of bars in Jacksonville Beach for being underage," McIlroy said. "So, I've come a long way in those 10 years."

McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, ended a 364-day winless drought and put to bed any talk that he couldn't finish. The failures – especially playing in the final group – had been mounting. As much as McIlroy had wanted to downplay it, his performance in crunch time was disconcerting. Australian Jason Day, who hasn't won since May, described the pressure of trying to close out a title when scar tissue from previous shortcomings builds.

"Deep down inside, you know that you want to do it," Day said. "Sometimes you can get in your own way and want it too much."

It was a wild final round at TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course, with as many as eight golfers playing musical chairs with the lead. McIlroy started in reverse with a water ball that led to an ugly double bogey on the fourth hole, and it looked as though this could be another week of disappointment.

"The hardest thing was just getting yourself to the point mentally where you say, Well, why not me? This is my tournament. I'm going to finish it off," he said.

If there was a moment when McIlroy shifted into that mode, it appeared to be after he made birdie at the par-5 ninth. His entire body language changed, and he had the McIlroy bounce in his step as he marched to the 10th tee. McIlroy said he gained a boost when he looked at the leaderboard and his three closest competitors – 54-hole leader Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood, who were in the last pairing, and Day, his playing competitor in the second-to-last group – were stuck in neutral, too.

"There's been a few times where I've been in positions like that, and I've taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck," McIlroy said. "I thought back to Crooked Stick in 2012, BMW Championship there. There was a lot of guys up around the lead, and I made a really good run on the back nine, was able to pull that off, and I sort of thought back to that today. I don't know why it popped into my head, but I guess all these experiences are so helpful to draw on."

This was far from McIlroy's “A game,” but what was most impressive about his performance was his finishing kick. He made the big birdie putts at Nos. 12 and 15; he blistered a drive at No. 16 to set up the winning birdie and split the fairway at 18 while holding a one-stroke lead. He decimated the four par 5s on Sunday, playing them in 3 under, which he had failed to do the day before or the week before at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"When he got a sniff, he pulled away from the other guys,” said Paul McGinley, a Sky Golf commentator. “That's what winners do, and that's what we've been missing from him. Rory's gift is he has another gear. That's what we haven't seen. Today, we saw a little window of that other gear."

Indeed, we did.

"He was aggressive when he needed to be, disciplined and patient when he needed to be," Nicklaus tweeted. "Really like what I saw."

It was everything we didn't see from 24-year-old Spaniard Jon Rahm, who made a boneheaded gamble and paid the price when he tried to hook a ball around a tree from a fairway bunker at the par-5 11th despite his caddie advising him to lay up. Rahm said all the right things following his stellar 64 on Saturday, but he's still a work in progress in learning to control his emotions and think his way around a golf course rather than simply overpower it.

"When you make a mistake like that, it's not just the drop of the shot. It's the psychological body blow you take," McGinley said. "He's going to be a future World No. 1, a future multiple major winner. He's got all the talent in the world, but he's going to have to learn and he's going to make mistakes along the way."

McIlroy credits a new attitude for his consistent play. He said it's more than confidence; it's feeling comfortable.

"I'm very comfortable with where everything is," he said.

With the victory, McIlroy joins Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only golfers to win 15 Tour titles, including four majors, before age 30. The victory also validates McIlroy’s belief that "it's more about the journey than the results," an approach he says he picked up from reading self-help books. And as he approaches his 30th birthday on May 4, he says he has started what he called the second phase of his career.

"I feel like I can make the next 10 years even better than the first 10 years. That's my motivation," he said, holding the winner's trophy. "If this is what you get at the end of it, then it's all worth it."

And now, let the career Grand Slam hype begin. McIlroy surely will enter the Masters in four weeks as the favorite, and he's not shying away from it.

"If I go to Augusta with a similar golf game to what I have now and the attitude I've shown over the first few weeks of the year, I think I'll have a great chance," he said.

But first he wants to savor a victory at a tournament in which he missed the cut in his first three starts as a sign of the maturity of his game.

"I don't want to look too far ahead. I really want to enjoy this," he said. "I’ve actually got an interior-design meeting tomorrow morning to pick out some stuff for our new house, so that's the next port of call."

Spoken like someone focused on the journey and not simply his results.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak