Rory McIlroy is the most exciting golfer on the planet, and it isn’t close

(Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)
WP

It occurred to me overnight.

It happened at some point between the insane second shot at the 18th hole at TPC Boston on Sunday afternoon, a shot that Rory McIlroy thought might go in the second it left his club (he was 210 yards away) and on that same hole a day later, when Rory knew a birdie would all but wrap up his second Deutsche Bank Championship and finally end a rough drought on the PGA Tour that had lasted 477 days.

What I realized was simple — Rory McIlroy is the most exciting golfer on the planet, and frankly, it isn’t even close.

This might not be much of an earth-shattering realization to some, but during that final round of the second FedEx Cup playoff event, the moment grew bigger than anything we’ve seen all season long.

Now, it isn’t fair to discount what Dustin Johnson did at the U.S. Open or the battle between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at the Open Championship — those were bigger in the sense of what was at stake — but when the 27-year-old* is able to find his golf game, his complete golf game, the sport grows to a new place, somewhere that — with all due respect to them — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, and others can’t reach.

(*When the heck did Rory become 27? Wasn’t he just 21? How has, all of a sudden, he become the grizzled veteran of this New Age Crew?)

The last 19 holes by Rory were must-watch stuff, but for so many reasons.

First, McIlroy has proved to us that when the putter shows up, he wins, end of conversation. His ball-striking is so superior to everyone else on a consistent level that if he is making putts they might as well just end the tournament right then and there. This was a comfortable Rory McIlroy, one that, as Paul Azinger likes to say on air during FOX broadcasts, did a perfect job at combining speed and line, making putts dead center with perfect speed for most of the final round.

“I knew my game was in good shape,” Rory told the media after his round. “I just needed to do something with the putting. I found something.”

On top of the putting, he was doing all of this in conditions he used to hate. For a guy that grew up in Northern Ireland, Rory was honest early in his career about brutal conditions and how much he didn’t enjoy it.

This is the same guy that shot 63 in benign conditions at St. Andrews back in 2010 to open the British only to follow it up with a second round 80 when the winds picked up. Rory had as many missed cuts as top-10s at the British Open through his first six starts, and just last year shot an opening round 80 at the Irish Open in tough conditions at Royal County Down, eventually missing the cut at his own tournament.

“I'm not a fan of tournaments where the outcome is predicted so much by the weather,” Rory said following the final round of the 2011 Open Championship, where he shot 7-over for the week to finish T-25. “I'm looking forward to getting back to playing in nice conditions in America. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”

But on Monday, just as winds started to pick up, gusting at times as much as 30 miles per hour, Rory locked in, and finally put together that final round that we wanted when he needed it in conditions he formerly hated.

If you look back on Rory’s 2016, you’ll see a lot of low final rounds, none that really mattered. The joke on social media became that no matter where Rory was on the leaderboard come Sunday, he’d find a way to finish in the top-10, a back-door effort that would only help his career stats, not his trophy case.

He shot 65 on Sunday at Bay Hill to finish T-27. He posted a final round 66 at the Wells Fargo, but all it did was vault him to a T-4. When he was in the hunt come Sunday, like at the Northern Trust Open in February, where an eagle at the opening hole of his final round put him in a tie for the lead, he failed to muster anything the rest of the day, flatlining to a 75, and following that up with a 74 on Sunday at Doral when he stood on the opening tee that day with a three-shot lead.

Maybe that’s why this PGA Tour has seemed a bit flat this year, if we are being honest. Rory is the guy we want to see in the hunt. Rory is the guy we love being chased by the rest of the best. Think about the 2014 PGA Championship. Big names like Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson were making runs at the Wanamaker, but there stood Rory, beating off the competition with mouth-dropping golf shot after mouth-dropping golf shot on the second nine.

Think about the Irish Open this year (remember that missed cut in ’15), when two fairway woods down the stretch not only won him the golf tournament, but reminded everybody of just how damn talented this kid is.

On Monday at TPC Boston, six shots back and, frankly, not really the biggest of conversation starters when you’re looking at players that could catch Paul Casey, Rory had a chance to post a number and make it matter.

Over those final 18 holes, PGA Tour members, fans, caddies and experts were reminded of one thing; Rory really is the Next Big Thing in this sport, a guy that can carry golf to another place when he’s around the lead. McIlroy has as many major trophies as Spieth, Day and Dustin combined, and while it’s been two years since he won one, you can’t deny his resume. Winning any event on the PGA Tour and European Tour these days is hard. Think about this season; Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson all failed to win a single PGA Tour tournament. These are great players, who had great stretches at times, but couldn’t close one out. Winning a major is great, but simply winning against the talent level of the current PGA Tour is insane. We might measure the best in the world by majors alone, but this field at TPC Boston looks a helluva lot like the field we saw at Baltusrol.

So that’s why this week was so big. It allowed Rory to be Rory once again.

There is something about the way Rory carries himself on the golf course when he’s playing well that’s mesmerizing. He isn’t smiling or frowning, he isn’t really up or down. He has that walk that only Rory has, always looking through the flagstick and through his fellow competitors instead of at them. While so many guys are out being buddies and chumming it up together, Rory spends his time off with his fiancé and friends, taking the “I want to beat you, not text you” approach to professional golf.

Jason Day has been the most dominant player this year. Dustin Johnson has, at times, been the most impressive. And Jordan Spieth has had another great season after a truly historic one.

But professional golf is Rory’s to take, as he did on Sunday. It’s his workshop, his canvas, his highway. His final round 65 at TPC Boston was a work of art, really. Mix some precise iron shots with some absolutely ridiculous bunker shots, like the one he nearly holed at the fourth for an eagle and the one he hit to kick-in distance on the 18th when he needed it, and you’re reminded of the whole package. Every golfer has had an Achilles Heel. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t the best chipper. Tiger Woods struggled to find fairways. Rory has battles with the putter. But there is no denying his ability to make the golf ball do things that only he can make it do.

I think back to the 18th hole on Monday, when Rory stood 251 yards to the green, hazard short and wind into his face, and there was no hesitation at all.

“Give me the three-wood, JP, and watch this.”

We saw a similar shot at the 2012 Honda Classic on the final hole to a flagstick that looked like it was floating in the middle of a lake. We saw it on the 10th at Valhalla. We saw it at the Irish Open, twice, and again, when a lot of players would mule over whether to go or lay up, he knew it before he even walked up to the ball (I almost feel there is a reason his name is so close to Roy McAvoy).

Rory pulled three-wood there not because he thought it gave him the best chance at birdie, but he pulled it because he knew he would pull off that golf shot. His confidence never left. Hit putter might have, but it was never a confidence issue.

Now it’s Rory’s world again. Golf is back to its rightful owner. The sport is more fun when the focus is on the curly haired kid that gets criticized for all the wrong reasons and rarely praised for the right ones.

As he waited for Casey to finish up on Sunday, knowing an unlikely eagle would put him in a playoff, he sat on a couch, fiancé to his right, and caddie next to her. His team was there to watch it happen again.

Rory is back. Golf thanks you, Rory.