Not Dustin Johnson. Not Tiger Woods. Not Brooks Koepka. Not Justin Thomas. When Rory McIlroy is flowing in one of those “I cannot miss a shot” rounds that he produces a handful of times a year, there is nobody else who can match the rhythm.
It’s fast, it’s smooth, it’s unfailingly easy and it feels as if he can go 18 full holes without missing a single shot. Of the 61 strokes McIlroy took on Sunday at Hamilton Golf and Country Club in a seven-stroke win at the 2019 Canadian Open, he gained ground on the field on 45 of them. If this sounds like an impossible number, that’s because it should be.
The 61 backed up a 67-66-64 start, putting McIlroy at 22 under for the week, a touchdown better than both Webb Simpson and Shane Lowry. It was telling on the CBS presentation on Sunday that the broadcast team started referencing the race for second place about halfway through the day.
The only drama on Sunday was whether McIlroy would break 60. The only time he’s scared that sacred 59 number in his career was another event in which Simpson trailed him. McIlroy shot 61 at the 2015 Wells Fargo Championship in Round 3 and again beat Simpson by a touchdown on that Sunday.
On this Sunday, McIlroy ran it to 9 under through 14 holes, and the glory hunt was on with a par 5, a par 3 and two par 4s in his last four. He needed to play them in 2 under for the magic 59. He needed to play them in 3 under for a 58. After a par-bogey stretch at Nos. 15 and 16, it looked as if the sirens would be aborted.
But then McIlroy hit a 341-yard tee shot on the par-5 17th and stuck a 7-iron from 196 yards to 3 feet. Those two shots are McIlroy condensed. Mind-altering drive and perfect iron from a distance that’s not supposed to yield eagle. He made the putt — nine of his 10 birdie or eagle putts on Sunday were from 11 feet or closer — and the hunt was back on.
A bogey at the last left him with 61, and this is the hilarious irony of McIlroy. If a 61 on a Sunday to win by seven can feel like a letdown, this did. And it felt like a letdown because it looked as if 59 was a foregone conclusion. At one point, it looked as if 57 was in play.
It’s not the wins and the numbers and the records that create unrealistic expectations for McIlroy. Rather, it’s how that flow he gets in makes it look like he’s playing a different sport. A joy to watch, sure, but a demon to have to live up to every week.
But McIlroy, it seems, has made peace with that, which is a great thing both for him and the sport. Because if the burden of expectations aren’t affecting McIlroy — to quote the iconic Kevin Garnett — anything is possible. The victory is the 16th of McIlroy’s career and a table-setter for Pebble Beach and the U.S. Open next week.
The cheeky joke floating around golf is, of course, McIlroy will go 75-76 and miss the cut at Pebble Beach because ha ha, he only plays well at non-majors now. But if you’re looking for tough days for worn-out narratives, you don’t have to look far. One of the talking points regarding McIlroy earlier this year is that he could no longer close out tournaments. Now he’s closed a pair of big ones in the last three months with the Players Championship and this one in Canada.
So while this week doesn’t carry over to next week on the leaderboard, we’ve been here before with McIlroy. He won the Open Championship in 2014, lit up an elite field at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in his next event and then took down Valhalla and the PGA Championship for one of the most scorching three-tournament stretches in golf history. Are we about to enter another one of those with Pebble Beach at its epicenter following this Canadian Open victory? We’ll have our answer in a week, but if McIlroy flows like he flowed on Saturday and Sunday in Canada, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Woods will be joined by another iconic Pebble Beach U.S. Open champion seven days from today. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2019 Canadian Open.
Adam Hadwin (6th): This is not the event a 65-year streak of Canadians failing to win this tournament comes to an end, but Hadwin would have had a real chance in a world where Rory McIlroy did not play this tournament. After a 65-66 start on Thursday and Friday, he faded slightly over the last two days as McIlroy hit the accelerator and blew past him, but it was pretty awesome to watch him strolling up No. 18 with the Canadian flag whipping on the final hole. He easily finished as low Canadian, and it’s his best finish anywhere since January. Grade: A
Graeme McDowell (T8): The Northern Irishman needed to be one of the top three finishers not already qualified for the Open Championship to make it into the the final major of 2019, which is being played in his home country at Royal Portrush for the first time in 1951. He made a 30-foot putt on the 72nd hole to do just that. And if this quote doesn’t get you going a little bit, then it might be time for a different sport. McIlroy won by seven, and that might not have even been the most important finish by an Ulsterman on Sunday afternoon at Hamilton. Grade: A
Brooks Koepka (T50): I know Koepka led this week by saying he didn’t really care about this week and was instead focused on the U.S. Open next week at Pebble Beach, but only breaking par one time in four rounds is not exactly inspiring stuff for the field favorite in the third major of the year. Koepka made more bogeys and double bogeys on the weekend than he made birdies and didn’t look very solid other than a 66 in Round 2. So I guess that means he’ll win Pebble Beach by three instead of five. Grade: C-