McIlroy ends drought in fitting fashion

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Rory McIlroy ended his winless drought in fitting fashion on Sunday, capturing his 19th career PGA Tour title and third Wells Fargo Championship victory at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., site of his first PGA Tour win in 2010.

Returning to action for the first time since missing the cut at the Masters last month at a place where he is so obviously comfortable coupled with the energetic, pro-McIlroy crowds was a heady mix for the Northern Ireland native, who celebrated his 32nd birthday early in the week (May 4) and his first victory as a father.

“It’s just awesome to play in front of these people again. You know when we came back from the pandemic, I thought I’d enjoy the peace and quiet a little bit, but I soon realized that to bring the best out of myself I needed this,” said McIlroy, who last won at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai exactly one year, six months and six days ago.

“I feed off the energy so much -- maybe here more so than anywhere else just because it’s the first place I’ve won three times, so the crowd has just been awesome all week and they really carried me through today.”

That included a lone bobble on Sunday at the 72nd hole when his tee shot found the hazard on 18, but he still managed a two-putt bogey for a one-shot victory over Abraham Ancer. Of note, McIlroy led the field in scrambling (14 of 18), ranked second in driving distance (322.7) and was third in Strokes Gained: Putting (6.945). After opening with a 1-over 72, he moved into contention with a second-round 66 then went 68-68 over the weekend.

“It’s never easy to win out here,” said McIlroy, who came into the Wells Fargo at No. 15 in the Official World Golf Ranking, the lowest since late 2009, and No. 51 in FedExCup standings. “It’s felt like a long time since that victory in China back in 2019. The world was a completely different place than it is today – everyone getting through a pandemic; life’s changed a lot for me being a dad, winning on Mother’s Day, thinking of (wife) Erica, thinking of my mom back home. Just feels awesome.”

The real turning point, though? A final-round 76 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March (he finished T-10, eight behind winner Bryson DeChambeau) left McIlroy feeling “dejected” and “maybe looking to go in a different direction.” He admitted to getting caught up trying to add speed and distance, a la DeChambeau, and following Bay Hill, McIlroy made a coaching change for the first time in his career, going with Pete Cowen in addition to longtime coach Michael Bannon.

"There's been too many times over the past couple of years where I went to tournaments and worked on stuff in the week off and I can't get it out of my head, I can't play," McIlroy admitted Saturday. "So just to have some more playable feelings and not have the swing broken down into five or six parts has been very important, and that's sort of what I tried to develop is still some swing thoughts that are very simple and very playable.”

Ancer finding the answers?

With rounds of 69-70-70-66, Ancer has now carded 13 straight rounds of par or better for the best current streak on Tour. He’s still in search of his maiden PGA Tour title, though, although the Wells Fargo marked his fourth career runner-up in his 115th start.

The key? Confidence.

“I enjoy being in the hunt and I like looking at the leaderboard and seeing my name up there,” said the 30-year-old Mexico native. “I'm not like, ‘Oh, my God, I have a chance,’ and you maybe get a little bit more nervous. I see my name and I'm looking to see what I need to do now instead of like how I need to play, maybe be a little more conservative. I know I can look at a leaderboard now and see where I am and I know if I make a couple birdies, I feel the confidence of doing that and I feel comfortable.”

Ancer started the day T-7, five shots behind 54-hole leader Keith Mitchell, and posted the low round of the day Sunday – a bogey-free 66 that was highlighted by three straight birdies on Nos. 15-17 to position himself in second place. He led the field for the week in greens in regulation (80.6 percent), Strokes Gained: Approach (7.48) and SG: Tee-to-Green (12.04). Ancer now has a streak of eight consecutive top-30 finishes.

Big progress for Woodland

The Wells Fargo signaled positive steps forward for Gary Woodland, who rebounded from a missed cut at the Valspar last week with a solo fifth place finish at Quail Hollow for his second top-10 this season. The 36-year-old Kansas native has reconnected with swing coaches Butch Harmon and Pete Cowen and appears to be putting a stretch of injuries and illness behind him.

“I mean, I just feel better,” said Woodland, who is taking next week off in preparation for the PGA Championship. “Walking on the fairway, my caddie even said that walking today, it’s just nice to see me back to where I belong, playing the way I'm supposed to be playing. That part's exciting.”

Regarding the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, Woodland said he recently played there and enjoyed it: “The golf course obviously suits me very well – it’s a big-boy golf course. So that I'm excited about that and coming in with a lot more confidence and a lot better game.”

Next up: AT&T Byron Nelson

The Tour heads to McKinney, Texas, for its first time at TPC Craig Ranch, a par-72, 7,468-yard design by Tom Weiskopf. Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama will tee it up for the first time since winning the green jacket, as will Brooks Koepka, Dallas native Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm, who is coming off his first missed cut at the Wells Fargo following 22 consecutive made cuts dating back to June 2020 at the Charles Schwab Challenge.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson will make his first start at the event since 2017 and will be aiming to break out of his so-called “slump” following a T-48 in his last start at the Valspar. He hasn’t notched a top-10 finish since February. DeChambeau, who regained the No. 1 spot in the FedExCup standings with a T9 finish at the Wells Fargo, will be chasing his third victory of the season.

TPC Craig Ranch is familiar territory for defending champion Sung Kang, who won this event in 2019 when it was played at Trinity Forest. The South Korean is a member there and looks to become the first since Tom Watson to defend his Byron Nelson title. Watson won three years in a row from 1978-80.

Also in the field is Dallas native Will Zalatoris, runner-up at the Masters, making his third start at the Byron Nelson. He missed the cut as a pro in 2018 and played in 2016 as a teenage amateur (missed cut). Zalatoris, who is 15-for17 on the season, missed the cut at the Wells Fargo for his first early exit since November.

Others to watch this coming week include Matt Fitzpatrick, who will be making his first start at the AT&T but comes in riding seven consecutive cuts made and has four top 10s in last seven starts, and Luke List, who notched his third top 10 this season at the Wells Fargo (T-6) and played at TPC Craig Ranch while on the Korn Ferry Tour.

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