It was just shy of 1,100 days that Rory McIlroy finally got a chance to defend his 2019 RBC Canadian Open title.
Not much changed.
McIlroy authored another tour de force north of the border at St. George’s Golf & Country Club in Toronto on Sunday with a brilliant display of scoring and overcoming a stretch that tested his mettle to win his 21st PGA Tour title.
Following a 5-under-par 65 in the third round, McIlroy, No. 8 in the Official World Gol Ranking, held off world No. 6 Justin Thomas and world No. 18 Tony Finau in the final megawatt grouping with a 62 to finish at 19 under to win by two shots.
In 2019, McIlroy closed with a 61 to win the Canadian Open by seven shots. The tournament was not played the past two years due to COVID restrictions.
“It’s incredible,” McIlroy said. “Playing with Tony and JT, and all of us playing the way we did, I think the worst round was 6 under, this is a day I will always remember. My 21st PGA Tour win, one more than somebody else, that gave me a little extra incentive today and I’m happy to get it done.”
That somebody else would be Greg Norman, who is the commissioner of LIV Golf, a rival league backed by Saudi Arabia that played its first event this week outside of London. McIlroy has been critical of the league.
“I had extra motivation of what’s going on across the pond,” he said. “The guy that’s spearheading that (league) has 20 wins on the PGA Tour and I was tied with him and I wanted to get one ahead of him. And I did. So that was really cool for me, just a little sense of pride on that one.”
Well, the Canadian Open was the PGA Tour’s resounding response to the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational Series event that featured a 54-hole, no-cut, shotgun tournament ending Saturday. In Canada, the massive galleries were loud, chants broke out for numerous players throughout the week, and the fans heartily celebrated its first live golf action after the COVUD-induced silence of the past two years. The fans’ final act? Thousands of them circled the 18th green, the crowd stretching back 50 yards down the fairway.
Adding to McIlroy’s celebration? It was the first time in 15 attempts that he successfully defended a title. He shot 29 over the front nine – the first 29 on either the front or back nine in his career.
And he had to dig deep to overcome a lull. In full flight, McIlroy was 8 under through 12 holes and led by three. But he missed a four-footer on 13 and a two-footer on 16 to fall back into a tie. But he birdied 17 after knocking his approach from 127 yards to tap-in range and birdied 18 from five feet.
“After COVID, I needed a total reset,” McIlroy said. “I rededicated myself and wanted to do what makes me happy and this makes me happy.”
Finau knocked in a 40-footer for birdie on the last to finish at 17 under. It capped a huge weekend – in the third round he tied his career low with a 62.
“Rory played great, he closed it out and hat’s off to him on a week like this,” Finau said. “That’s fantastic playing on the weekend. I played great; he just played a couple shots better.”
Thomas, who came back from eight shots with 10 holes to play to win the PGA Championship in a playoff, was tied for the lead before making his first bogey in 34 holes and then another at the last. He finished at 15 under.
Justin Rose made a run at a sub-par 60 round and was actually 11 under through 15 holes and three pars away from a 59. But in his round of three eagles and seven birdies, Rose bogeyed two of his last three holes to match his career low of 60.
He finished in a tie for fourth at 14 under.
“I’m totally disappointed,” Rose said, especially about his last-hole bogey. “Because you know what’s at stake, for sure. You’re really just playing the last hole – I never shot 59 before – so it would have been a lovely footnote on the week.”
Joining Rose at 14 under was Sam Burns, who shot 65.
But in the end, again, it was McIlroy’s show. And he has a lot of confidence heading into the U.S. Open at the Country Club near Boston that starts Thursday.
“I feel like it’s getting tougher and tougher to win on the PGA Tour,” McIlroy said. “Just look at the two guys that I played with today. I went out with a lead and had to shoot 8-under par to get the job done. So the depth of talent on this Tour is really, really impressive.
“It gives you a lot of confidence to know that, just to see where your game stacks up against the best. JT’s coming off winning his second major at the PGA Championship. He’s won I think 15 times on Tour. He’s done a lot in the game. Tony as well. Like Tony’s struggled a little bit the last sort of six to 12 months, but he seems to have really turned it around. He had a good finish at Colonial, had another good finish here.
“So to go up against guys that are not just the best players in the world but best players in the world playing somewhat near their best and coming out on top, that, it can only give you confidence.”