One of the best indicators of an elite golfer — a truly elite golfer — is their ability to turn a year around in a single week. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson did it last year when he shot three straight rounds of 78 or worse and then won three events to close out the year, including the Masters (in November). Rory McIlroy did it this week after missing three of his last five cuts at stroke-play events by winning the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday at Quail Hollow for his 19th victory on the PGA Tour.
McIlroy took a Quail Hollow event for the third time in his career, and this year’s victory came on the back of a near-flawless weekend. Frankly, it was difficult to see coming no matter which way you looked.
McIlroy looked lost at both the Players Championship in March and the Masters in April, failing to make the weekend at both events for just the second time in his career He did not look all that great on Thursday this week, either, as he shot 1 over and finished 120th in the field from tee to green.
Then Rory made just three mistakes the rest of the way, finishing 66-68-68 to get to 10 under and beat Abraham Ancer by a single stroke. McIlroy made one miscue in each of his last three rounds, and the last one nearly cost him.
Standing on the 72nd hole with a two-stroke lead — having played menacing, almost perfect golf for the first 17 holes — he hit his drive up the left along the creek running up No. 18 and had to take an unplayable. From there, he was able to save a wild bogey and escape with the win, but as he said after his round, “It’s never easy.”
The problem with McIlroy saying “it’s never easy”? Over the four hours leading up to that, he made it look like it was as simple as can be. Two shots stick out from the final round, and both were — uncharacteristically, when it comes to memorable shots by Rory McIlroy — out of greenside bunkers. The first was an up-and-down effort for birdie at the drivable par-4 14th. The second was an up and down for birdie at the par-5 15th. The latter gave him the cushion he would need at No. 18.
The win made McIlroy, who had not won on the PGA Tour since the end of 2019, the immediate favorite at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in two weeks, and there are a few reasons for that. Not only did he win the last PGA Championship that was played at Kiawah back in 2012, but he plays golf at a level that is difficult to prognosticate.
In other words, what makes McIlroy one of the best of all-time — he matched Ernie Els’ 19 PGA Tour wins and four majors on Sunday — is that not even a handful of missed cuts or a mediocre Round 1 on Thursday serve as sherpas for where this thing is going.
When you play golf at McIlroy’s level, one found pearl or one unearthed nugget does not mean you are on the right trajectory again. One tweak does not mean you are on the road to recovery. No, one flip of the switch is much more meaningful when you are Rory McIlroy. Whatever he found between Round 1 and Round 2 means he’s capable of winning again — not just playing better — and it reminds everyone the threat he’s always posed has not changed at all, even if the results did for a short period of time. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship.
Viktor Hovland (T3): After a mid-spring lull from Hovland, he’s heating back up heading into a busy summer. Following last week’s T3 at the Valspar Championship, Hovland followed it up with another one this week at Quail Hollow. Hovland was actually seventh from tee to green, which was slightly better than where McIlroy ended up on the week. Huge expectations for him going into the PGA Championship. Grade: A
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Bryson DeChambeau (T9): The Big Boy had a wild week. After thinking he missed the cut and returning to Dallas on Friday evening, he realized he’d misjudged where the final number would be and had to take a return flight at 3 a.m. ET on Saturday for his Round 3 tee time. He made the most of it by shooting 68-68 on the weekend and finished in the top 10 at a course where he should thrive for a long time. If not for the 18th hole (which he played in 3 over on Saturday and Sunday), he would have been in the mix on Sunday afternoon, which would have been a hilarious ending to a bizarre saga. Grade: B+
Phil Mickelson (69th): After playing the first 18 holes in 7 under, Lefty played the next 54 in 14 over. It was not pretty. He lit up the world in Round 1 and proceeded to lost 10 shots to the field over the next three days from tee to green alone. This is sort of emblematic of who he is at this point in his career, though: slivers of greatness followed by chasms of futility. It’s why he was hesitant to make any overtures about winning on Thursday and why winning high-level events (like the Wells Fargo or better) is going to be so difficult for him over the course of the rest of his insanely good career. Grade: B