Sunday had brought a rumble and a jumble. After months of stress fatigue with the serial poaching of players by the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf Invitational Series and of some player winces after being asked about that lavish organization — and of some of the same players then defecting nonetheless — the happenings Sunday on the old PGA Tour managed to bring up an old topic: golf.
The golf stirred as McIlroy gobbled up a six-shot deficit to No. 1 Scottie Scheffler within the first seven holes and then passed Scheffler to win all the baubles, including the mere $18 million bonus that comes from this less-moneyed tour. In some stuff that qualified as pretty gripping, McIlroy and Sungjae Im shot 66s to Scheffler’s 73, leaving McIlroy at 21 under par and the other two at 20 under after a week that began with Scheffler six shots ahead of the other two in the multiweek staggered scoring system.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really giving myself much of a chance teeing off in the fourth round,” McIlroy said, touting Masters champion Scheffler as the unmistakable player of the year and saying, “I think he deserves this maybe more than I deserve it.”
This thing had gone to the PGA Tour’s loudest voice all through the slog, and so he said: “It’s going to be hard for me to stomach going into Wentworth [in England] in a couple of weeks time and seeing 18 [LIV players at the DP World Tour’s flagship event]. That just doesn’t sit right with me. So, yeah, I feel strongly. I believe what I’m saying are the right things, and I think when you believe that what you’re saying is the right things, you’re happy to stick your neck out on the line.”
With that said, the weekend could turn to the weekdays and the LIV plays — the presumed resumption of who might defect next to the exhibition-style series, which already had snared 10 of the current top 50, albeit zero of the top 10. Multiple reports from Saturday had pegged the world’s No. 2 player, British Open champion Cameron Smith of Australia, along with players ranked 18th (Joaquin Niemann), 44th (Harold Varner III), 53rd (Cameron Tringale), 63rd (Marc Leishman) and 93rd (Anirban Lahiri).
Smith, 29, headlined that list, and he played through the 87-degree swelter here, finishing 20th of the 29 contestants. He arrived at the No. 18 tee alongside Billy Horschel, and they teed off to limited attention and limited reaction except the usual sole voice hollering, “Woooo!” Then Horschel spoke of a phenomenon seldom mentioned: guys who will be missed. Turns out there might be some.
So Horschel played No. 18 trying to fend off a tinge of sadness as he reckoned it might be the last hole he plays — excepting majors, perhaps — alongside his friend and fellow resident of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “I think there’s guys that are missing guys, maybe,” Horschel said. “You know, I miss Ian Poulter. … He’s a guy I enjoyed being around. He’s a guy I enjoyed playing with.”
Yet: “If Cam goes, he’ll be the one I’ll miss the most.”
As he spoke after a week of announced PGA Tour changes that followed a meeting of 23 PGA Tour players in Delaware, golf roared on out there. It had begun in the morning, with the wrap of the weather-delayed third round, with Scheffler birdieing four of his leftover six holes to zoom to that six-shot lead. Then had come a break before the fourth round, so Scheffler and McIlroy and Jon Rahm and others had lunched together.
“We talked about the restaurants in Dubai,” McIlroy said, soon adding, “I don’t know, I mean, anything but the golf and the money.”
The fourth round began two hours after the third round ended, and the tilt began moments after the fourth round began. McIlroy bogeyed No. 1, but so did playing partner Scheffler, three-putting after leaving his first putt at six feet. Soon: “He hit a tee shot on the fourth that just didn’t seem like a Scottie Scheffler drive,” McIlroy said.
“For whatever reason, my swing wasn’t where it had been the first few days of the week,” Scheffler would say, his 73 built with four bogeys and just one birdie.
By the time they got to No. 8, they stood tied, and by the middle of the back nine, Im had elbowed right in there among them, all within one shot. Then came McIlroy’s birdie surging right down the boulevard to the cup from 30 feet on the par-3 No. 15, tying him with Scheffler again, and then came No. 16, which would decide matters between the two. Both played carnival golf all over the hole to get to hard par putts, McIlroy chipping from a lousy spot behind the green and caroming one off the stick, but with McIlroy making his from seven feet and Scheffler missing his from nine.
That became the first time all week when Scheffler trailed, 70 holes in. Soon everybody parred out, and they hugged on No. 18, and McIlroy hardly knew what to say because Scheffler had been so great for so long this year — that, too, a mix. Soon McIlroy said to the bunched-in crowd: “I believe in the game of golf. I believe in this tour, in particular. I believe in the players on this tour. It’s the greatest place in the world to play golf, bar none, and I’ve played all over.”
And soon even Scheffler said: “Playing professional golf for a living is such a gift. For me, I don’t play golf for money. I play to win tournaments, and I play to have fun and do my best and see where the game can take me. Today the money definitely didn’t creep into my mind. I wanted to win the season-long title. I’ve had a really great year, and I wanted to finish it off with a win here, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that. But at the end of the day, it’s such a gift to be out here playing golf for money, and I can’t — I’m just so thankful to be out here.”
That concluded some day — and some season.