Sunday's golf: McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

Associated Press
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Charlotte, N.C. — Rory McIlroy found his comfort zone at Quail Hollow and left with a trophy he badly needed.

McIlroy closed with a 3-under 68 and made it tough on himself at the end Sunday, driving into the hazard left of the 18th fairway and needing two putts from 45 feet for a one-shot victory in the Wells Fargo Championship.

Rory McIlroy holds the trophy after winning during the fourth round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.

What mattered was ending 18 months since his last victory in the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, along with finding a strong semblance of his game as he prepares to return to Kiawah Island for the PGA Championship.

“It's never easy," McIlroy said. “It felt like a long time.”

It showed. McIlroy seemed to be on the verge of choking up at winning on Mother's Day, thinking of his mother, Rosie, and wife Erica. She was at Quail Hollow with their daughter, Poppy, and McIlroy doted on them before signing his card.

McIlroy seized control with two splendid bunker shots, getting up-and-down for birdie on the reachable par-4 14th and the par-5 15th, and then holding on at the end.

Abraham Ancer ran off three straight birdies and nearly closed with a fourth one, posting a 66 for a runner-up finish, the fourth of his career as the Mexican seeks his first PGA Tour title.

McIlroy finished at 10-under 274 for his 19th career victory, and his third at Quail Hollow.

“This is one of my favorite places in the world," said McIlroy, who picked up his first PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow in 2010. “The break the drought and win here, it's awesome.”

It was a tough finish for Keith Mitchell, who started the final round with a two-shot lead and quickly stretched it to three shots with a 6-iron out of a fairway bunker into a stiffening breeze to 12 feet for birdie.

But his short game let him down all day, leading to bogeys on the fifth and sixth holes that cost him the lead, and on the 14th hole and 15th holes when he had to settle for pars after being in position for birdies.

Mitchell, whose only victory was the Honda Classic just over two years ago, needed to finish alone in second to qualify for the PGA Championship through the money list. But he dropped a shot on the 17th and closed with a 72 to tie for third with Viktor Hovland, who had a 67.

Former U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland had a share of the lead early on the back nine until he went through a bad patch of back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 12 and 13, and settling for pars on the next two scoring holes. He shot 71 and finished fifth.

Bryson DeChambeau managed a tie for ninth following a 68-68 weekend that began with him flying home to Dallas thinking he had missed the cut.

McIlroy, along with going 18 months without a win, slipped to No. 15 in the world, his lowest position in more than a decade. He brought on swing coach Pete Cowen for an extra set of eyes. They worked hard last week in Florida as McIlroy tried to get back to understanding what he does so well with the golf swing.

Winning is not an instant cure. He hit only three fairways on Sunday, and the last one nearly got him in trouble. His ball landed on the hill left of the winding creek, just short of the water, in a deep hole of shaggy grass. He wisely chose to take a penalty drop instead of gouging it out, and he sent an 8-iron towering toward the green, landing safely in the fat of the putting surface.

That brought out of the loudest cheers of a day filled with them. The Wells Fargo Championship had more energy than any tournament since golf returned from the pandemic.

Just what McIlroy needed.

He thought he would enjoy some quiet of no spectators. It didn't take long for him to realize he missed the energy. “To bring out the best in myself, I needed this," he said.

And when it was over, he turned and heaved his golf ball toward thousands of fans.

PGA Tour Champions

With a big comeback and an even bigger putt, Alex Cejka ensured he won't have to wait or play his way into events for a while.

Cejka won the Regions Tradition on Sunday in only his third PGA Tour Champions start, beating defending champion Steve Stricker with a birdie on the first hole of a playoff to earn a full exemption for the next two seasons.

A childhood refugee from communist Czechlosovokia (now the Czech Republic), the 50-year-old Cejka made a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18 and Stricker missed an 8-footer with a chance to extend the playoff at Greystone Golf & Country Club.

“It’s incredible. I still can't believe it. I have no words," said Cejka, who made the field as first alternate when Jay Haas withdrew on Monday. ”I fought so hard.

“We work so hard. I think it's everybody's dream to win trophies and I did it on this tour.”

Cejka had turned a three-stroke deficit into a two-shot lead over the final nine holes for a 5-under 67. His winning putt was from a similar spot to the one Stricker made for birdie in regulation to force the playoff.

Stricker, who won the last time the event was held in 2019, closed with a 68 to match Cejka at 18-under 270. He didn't speak to the media before leaving the course.

“You know what, for 99% I thought he was going to make it (in the playoff) and I knew I had to make it to have a chance to go into an extra hole,” Cejka said. “It was a pretty straight putt.

“He had this putt to go into the playoff, just a little bit longer. And I watched him. It was that straight, so I played it that straight and it never moved."

Cejka finished tied for second behind Stricker at the Chubb Classic as a Monday qualifer. He fled his home country with his father at age 9, escaping by foot and train and even swimming and bicycle.

“I’m one of the thousands, millions of people who have a dream and got it done,” Cejka said.

Swede Robert Karlsson was third at 14 under after a 69 as the top three final threesome played all day without much of a threat from the pack. He finished with a 69.

Ernie Els (66) and Jerry Kelly (70) finished at 11 under. Two-time champion Bernhard Langer closed with a 71 to finish at 9 under with David McKenzie.

Cejka's only bogey came on the first hole of the day. A four-time winner on the European Tour, he won the 2015 Puerto Rico Open for his lone PGA Tour victory.

Cejka kept playing through the COVID-19 pandemic, winning twice on the Arizona-based Outlaw Tour. Now he's fully exempt for the rest of this season and all of 2022, while also gaining a five-year exemption into both the Regions Tradition and the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.

On Sunday, Stricker made about a 13-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force the playoff when Cejka two-putted for par after a poor bunker shot.

“He holed a great putt under pressure to go back into the playoff,” Cejka said. “It was a clutch putt. But in the playoff, I'm a winner. It might be different in 2-3 weeks."

Cejka had a run of three straight birdies from 12-14 to build a two-stroke advantage heading into the final five holes. Stricker's long birdie putt on No. 16 cut it in half before both parred 17.

Stricker had been clutch on No. 18 all weekend.

He had birdied Friday to move into a share of the lead and vaulted to the lead solo with a 25-foot eagle putt on Saturday.

Stricker had won both previous times on the PGA Tour Champions when holding the 54-hole lead, the Regions Tradition and U.S. Senior Open Championship, both in 2019.

LPGA

Ariya Jutanugarn shot a 9-under-par 63 in the final round to win the LPGA Thailand by one stroke on Sunday and become the first home winner of the tournament in 14 years.

Jutanugarn's overall total of 22 under 266 just edged out her fellow Thai Atthaya Thitikul, 18, who missed a four-foot birdie putt at the last to force a playoff.

Jutanugarn's unblemished round included nine birdies and went some way to making up for her collapse in 2013 when she blew a two-shot lead on the 18th hole with a triple bogey that handed victory to South Korea's Inbee Park.

“This means the world to me. Since 2013, it’s been one of my biggest dreams to win in Thailand. I’d like to thank the fans for always believing in me. This win is for all of you,” said Jutanugarn who has been playing at the Siam Country Club since 2007 when she was just 11.

Thitikul, who held the tournament lead from the sixth hole until she made a bogey on the 17th, had to be content with second place, her best finish on the LPGA Tour.

“This is like my new experience coming so pretty close to winning. I already gave my best in the last putt. I’m already proud of myself. It’s beyond expectations to finish second in my first LPGA event as a pro,” she said.

Thailand's Patty Tavatanakit, the leader after three rounds, shot a final-round 70 to finish in joint-third with American Angel Yin (66) and South Korean duo of three-time champion Amy Yang (64) and So Yeon Ryu.

European Tour

Garrick Higgo matched Tiger Woods' record to become joint quickest to three tournament wins since 1990 with victory at the Canary Islands Championship on Sunday.

The 21-year-old South African had a hole-in-one on his way to a 7-under 64 that secured him his third European Tour title — and second in three weeks.

“It’s unreal, I played so well today (Sunday)," Higgo said. “I hit the ball very nicely so it was a lot less stressful than the last time because I was hitting it a lot better. I can’t believe it happened so quickly again but my game has been good so I can believe it as well.”

He aced the par-3 seventh hole and and made seven birdies to finish at 27 under for the tournament in Tenerife, matching Woods for the fewest number of events needed to claim three European Tour or PGA Tour wins since 1990.

Playing in his 26th event, Higgo also is the fastest South African to three wins, not including majors.

“I’ve been working really hard, a lot of little things, and I’ve also accepted what works for me and stuck with that," Higgo said. "I think that’s been a big thing, and not if I don’t play as well look for something. I’m just going to try and keep going. I think I can go as high as I want to, the way I’m playing I can do a lot of good things.”

Two weeks ago he won the Gran Canaria Open with a European Tour record low score of 255. His other European Tour win came last season at the Portugal Open. He finished in a tie for eighth last week at the Tenerife Open.

On Sunday Higgo won by six shots over second-place Maverick Antcliff of Australia. Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland finished another shot back in third place.

Walker Cup

Austin Eckroat and Pierceson Coody got the United States off to a fast start, and Cole Hammer and Stewart Hagestad finished off Great Britain & Ireland in the Walker Cup.

Ricky Castillo won again, too, and the Americans took five of the 10 afternoon singles matches and tied another Sunday at Seminole Golf Club for a 14-12 victory.

The Americans won for the third straight time to take a 38-9-1 lead in the biennial event first played in 1922.

Nathaniel Crosby, the son of late crooner Bing Crosby, became the first U.S. captain with back-to-back victories since Buddy Marucci in 2007 and 2009.

Eckroat overwhelmed Mark Power 7 and 6 in the opening match, and Coody beat Alex Fitzpatrick 3 and 1 in the second. Castillo topped John Murphy 2 and 1 to become the only player to finish the two-day event 4-0.

Hammer beat Ben Schmidt 4 and 3 in the second-to-last match, and Hagestad put the Americans over the top when he was 4 up with four to play in a 4-and-2 victory over Ben Jones.

Quade Cummins gave the U.S. a half-point, winning the 18th with a par to pull even with Barclay Brown.

British Amateur champion Long, Matty Lamb, Angus Flanagan and Jack Dyer won matches for GB&I. Long beat John Pak 1 up, Lamb topped Davis Thompson 2 up, Flanagan beat William Mouw 1 up, and Dyer edged U.S. Amateur champion Tyler Strafaci 1 up.

Long played Sunday afternoon after missing the first three sessions because of a stomach virus that affected both teams and their captains. Strafaci sat out Saturday.

GB&I took 2 1/2 of the four points in the morning foursomes to pull within a half-point.

Power and Murphy beat Coody and Pak 1 up, Lamb and Dyer routed Hagestad and Strafaci 6 and 5, and Flanagan and Schmidt halved with Hammer and Thompson. Ricky Castillo and Mouw topped Fitzpatrick and Brown 1 up.

GB&I last won on American soil in 2001 at Ocean Forest in St. Simons Island, Georgia.

The 2023 event is set for the Old Course at St. Andrews.

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