Rory McIlroy's Players Championship win sets him up for Masters tilt

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent

During the summer of his golfing life, in 2014, Rory McIlroy was famously booze-free; the abstinence bringing two majors and a World Golf Championships title as he rose to world number one.

Having won The Open that year, followed by the Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA, I asked him if it was finally time to toast his success? "Oh yes, I'm going to be celebrating this," he laughed.

Contrast that reaction to how he talked in the wake of Sunday's landmark triumph at the Players Championship.

"I'm going to sit down and see what I can take from this and try to put it into the next few weeks," he said in an interview for the BBC Golf podcast, The Cut. He is fully aware the Masters is just around the corner.

McIlroy will still celebrate and enjoy this Players victory, and so he should. But that analytical response speaks to the maturity of the 29 year old, who ended an increasingly frustrating run of near misses with this win.

It was a special success. McIlroy prevailed on a packed leaderboard finding real inspiration on a back nine that might have unravelled with his bogey on the 14th.

"Maybe, if this had not gone the way I wanted it to, it might have eaten away at me," McIlroy told me.

But it did not and that fact should silence a growing band of critics who increasingly believed that he lacked the nerve and heart to win the game's biggest prizes.

While they fretted over his inability to convert that string of promising positions, they questioned everything from the Northern Irishman's mental state, ability to putt, work ethic and choice of caddie.

But the player stayed resolutely patient. "I feel every week I've contended I've been more comfortable in contention," McIlroy said of his recent frustrations.

Rory McIlroy
The victory was McIlroy's 15th on the PGA Tour and first in one year

"I just kept going, doing what I've been doing all year, biding my time trying to hit good shot after good shot. Thankfully it all came together."

He insists he has not been as frustrated by the year long winless spell that has just ended as many people would expect. "I'm playing better golf than the majority of people out there," he said.

"So I know I just have to keep doing what I'm doing."

Few players possess McIlroy's extraordinary ability and it came to the fore on the 15th hole on Sunday. It was there that he propelled a sensational 180-yard six-iron bunker shot to set up a crucial bounce-back birdie.

Then came a 347-yard drive to provide the platform for the decisive birdie on the 16th before a 288-yard missile from the nerve-wracking 18th tee.

It helped secure the par he needed to settle what was an absolute classic Players. "It was probably the most difficult shot I had all day," he admitted.

The strength to nail it came from his experience more than a decade ago at the Hong Kong Open. There he persuaded himself to fully commit to a three-wood final-hole tee shot which had troubled him all week and it duly brought victory.

"I think the golf gods will reward you for making a good committed swing," he said. "And any time I have a tough tee shot I stand up, I pick my target and I swing as hard as I can."

McIlroy has reaped rewards ever since and last week at Sawgrass proved no different. "I piped it down 18 by just remembering that tiny little thing from Hong Kong," he said.

He has come a long way since and his Players success is the biggest win outside his four major triumphs. It was arguably the most gutsy performance of his career.

Furthermore, it is a significant win for the game in general. Across the globe, McIlroy generates more interest than any other golfer besides Tiger Woods.

When he is in his pomp no one plays a better brand of golf. Sunday's win was not him at his imperious best, but showed us the dogged side to his character.

He is a stubborn so-and-so, simply because he believes in what works for him. Hence a vehement defence of caddie Harry Diamond, for whom he had fulsome praise after their second win together.

Rory McIlroy and Harry Diamond
Former Irish amateur Harry Diamond has been on McIlroy's bag since 2016

"People just think he's my best friend and I got him the bag because I didn't want to listen to anyone else. But that's not true," McIlroy said.

"Harry is an accomplished golfer and has turned into one of the best caddies out here, if not the best."

But the key is the golfer himself and his growing maturity which has impacted on his game. "It's been having a focus over the last six or seven months on my attitude, especially my attitude to golf," he revealed.

"Not letting golf define who I am as a person, trying to keep the two things very separate because in the past I would let what I shot that day influence my mood."

Maybe that is why there were no histrionics when he holed the winning putt, a mere puffing of the cheeks to recognise a job extraordinarily well done.

McIlroy says this thinking is what has helped him become so consistent. His victory caps a run of six consecutive PGA Tour events where his worst finish has been a share of sixth place.

It is an enviable record and no player this year would swap it. This victory will inevitably stoke anticipation for his next attempt to complete the career Grand Slam at April's Masters at Augusta.

Holding The Players trophy brings no guarantees in that regard although it will generate immense hype and he knows it is coming.

But the mental fortitude that delivered this victory informs us he will be better equipped than ever before to deal with the inevitable hullabaloo when he gets to Augusta.


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