ATLANTA — Whether you believe in the wave gods or not, something certainly made for the end of the 2021-22 PGA Tour season in the most exciting way possible. The best player of the year and the most outstanding player of the year finished the Tour Championship in what was essentially a match play duel with eight figures in prize money at stake.
When it was over, Rory McIlroy defeated Scottie Scheffler to end a unique PGA Tour season. It marked McIlroy’s 22nd Tour victory and his third FedExCup, a record.
Scheffler kicked off the year with one of golf’s greatest wins of all time, an eight-week four-win streak that culminated in a Masters Championship in April. McIlroy took over as the most articulate and outspoken defender on the PGA Tour during a sudden and overwhelming LIV Golf charge. Together, the two made up the PGA Tour for most of 2022, so it was only fitting that they would be the last two players to stand out in golf history like no other in a season.
In Sunday’s final round—which began shortly after the last holes of a rain-delayed Saturday at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club—Scheffler had a six-stroke lead on the field and looked poised to walk to a win that would single season.
But Scheffler made a bogey on three of the first six holes when McIlroy, his playing partner, birdied four of the first seven. Thus, a lead of six strokes was gone with 11 holes to play.
Both players sat down and played a few holes of par golf. But nothing is ever easy with McIlroy – and nothing is too hard for Scheffler. McIlroy made a bogey on the 14th with an ugly chip, then rolled a titanic 32-footer for birdie that caused a cheer that echoed all over East Lake.
On the next hole, the tension rose even more as McIlroy flew over the green, but managed to save par with a seven-footer, while Scheffler missed his own nine-foot par putt. That gave McIlroy a one-stroke lead, which was the first time Scheffler didn’t have at least part of the lead throughout the entire tournament. The bogey also had the potential to become the most expensive missed shot of Scheffler’s career.
Golf’s obsession with money rose to deafening levels in the final holes of the Tour Championship because the gap between first and second place was so great. The Tour Championship winner will receive a check for $18 million, while the runner-up will receive $6.5 million.
McIlroy’s birdie putt on the 17th rolled just past the cup, while Scheffler’s nine-footer never even scared the hole. Meanwhile, ahead, Sungjae Im, who had even tied with Scheffler at 20-under, just missed a birdie putt that would have given him part of the lead.
So McIlroy and Scheffler went to the 18th with McIlroy taking a hit on Scheffler and the in-the-clubhouse Im. The gallery the duo followed was huge, but understandably not quite at the level or intensity of the 2018 wave that followed Tiger Woods to victory. Still, both players felt the warmth of the crowd as they threw their tee shots from more than 330 yards into the fairway and prepared to hit across the titular East Lake to the clubhouse.
McIlroy didn’t execute his signature strut all the way across the 18th fairway, though he casually munched on an energy bar as if he were in the middle of a practice round. Scheffler, striking first and perhaps feeling the tension of the moment, fired his approach shot into one of the greenside bunkers near the clubhouse. McIlroy didn’t fare much better, curling his approach off the edge of a catering tent and into the thick shaggy under the tent.
Scheffler stomped out of the sand and flew all over the green, ending in an awkward descent at the margin. McIlroy, meanwhile, managed to get some relief from the edge of the tent he’d nailed, but his own approach shot past the cup as if it were a hole in another well-known Georgia golf course.
Scheffler left himself with a seven-footer for par. So McIlroy had two strokes to take 21 feet and win the Tour Championship, and with a soft tap-in-par, he took it.
The PGA Tour now enters its two-week outdoor season with strong headwinds – an existential threat from the LIV Golf Invitational Series, a newly empowered group of elite champions, and deep concerns from the grassroots, as well as tournament and sponsors. Golf could look just as different a year from now as it did a year ago.
The only thing that is clear is that Rory McIlroy is the champion of the Tour in more ways than one.
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.