Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. — Rory McIlroy made two late birdies amid the wild theatrics of Sunday at The Players Championship and closed with a 2-under 70 to win the next best thing to a major.
It required a major performance down the scary stretch at the TPC Sawgrass.
McIlroy could not afford to make a mistake over the final hour because of Jim Furyk, a 48-year-old former Ryder Cup captain who nearly pulled off a stunner. Furyk, one of the last players to get in the strongest field in golf, capped a 67 with a shot so good into the 18th that he started walking when he hit it.
It plopped down 3 feet from the hole for a birdie that would give him the lead.
But not for long.
McIlroy, one of eight players to have at least a share of the lead in the final round, was coming off a bogey on the 14th to fall behind and was in trouble with a tee shot that found a bunker right of the fairway. He responded with his best shot of the day to 15 feet for birdie.
Then, McIlroy hit the longest drive of the round on the par-5 16th, leaving him a 9-iron from a good lie in the rough to set up a two-shot birdie and the lead.
Most important, he found dry land on the par-3 17th, the island green that never looks smaller than on Sunday at The Players.
He was solid to the end on a chilly, cloudy day and finished at 16-under 272 to win The Players on his 10th try.
It might even set up the 29-year-old from Northern Ireland for the Masters next month, the only major he lacks for the career Grand Slam.
“This is probably the deepest field of the year, with so much on the line,” McIlroy said. “I’m thankful it was my turn this week.”
Furyk didn’t know he was in The Players until one week ago, and he was on the verge of winning until McIlroy came through in the end. Furyk started the back nine with two birdies to get in the mix and finished strong. His only regret was a 3-foot par putt on the 15th.
Even so, it showed he has plenty of game left after devoting two years as Ryder Cup captain. The runner-up finish moves him high enough in the world ranking to qualify for the Match Play in two weeks.
“A shot here, a shot there, maybe could have been a little different,” Furyk said. “But ultimately, left it all out there. It was also nice to get in contention, to get under the heat, to have to hit shots under a lot of pressure, and then to respond well to that and hit some good golf shots. It’ll be a confidence boost going forward.
Some of the most entertaining moments came from everyone else.
Eddie Pepperell of England, in his debut on the Players Stadium Course, ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch to briefly share the lead, none bigger than a putt from just inside 50 feet on the 17th green.
One group later, Jhonattan Vegas holed a putt from the bottom left to the top right pin position, just under 70 feet, the longest putt made on the island green since the PGA Tour had lasers to measure them. That gave him a share of the lead, too.
Both shot 66 and tied for third.