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You wouldn’t necessarily think that Northern Ireland and Charlotte would have a lot in common.
They do share one thing, though — an affection for golfer Rory McIlroy, who came from the first of those places and has risen to greatness partly due to his dominance in the other.
McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship for the third time Sunday, edging Abraham Ancer by a single stroke on a sunny Mother’s Day in Charlotte as chants of “Rory! Rory!” reverberated around the course.
McIlroy already was the only golfer to win the tournament at Quail Hollow Club twice. Now he’s a three-time champion of the event, winning on Sunday even without his best stuff, and after nearly imploding on the final hole.
The Northern Irishman has called Charlotte one of his favorite places in the world several times over the years, and the crowds at Quail Hollow always encourage that love. McIlroy never was one of those players who enjoyed the peace and quiet of COVID-centric golf. He plays better when there are crowds urging him on. And in our increasingly vaccinated world, that is now an option once again.
“This place has been good to me,” McIlroy said afterward of Quail Hollow. “Ever since I first set eyes on this golf course, I loved it from the first time I played it, and that love has sort of been reciprocated back. I’ve played so well here over the years…. This is the first time I’ve ever won an event for the third time, so that’s pretty cool to do it here.”
It wasn’t a simple start or finish. McIlroy said that on Wednesday night he had considered pulling out of the tournament due to a neck injury and might have done so if he had an early Thursday tee time.
“My neck completely locked up on me on the range on Wednesday afternoon,” McIlroy said.
And then on the 72nd and final hole Sunday, McIlroy had to navigate out of serious trouble, then two-putt from 43 feet, 10 inches to salvage a bogey and secure his 19th PGA Tour victory. McIlroy pumped his fist in relief after his final two-foot putt went in to give him a final-round 68, then grabbed his golf ball and heaved it into the happy crowd.
“Shows you how awesome he is as a player,” said Keith Mitchell, who played in the final twosome with McIlroy Sunday. “He didn’t have his best today and he still won.”
Why McIlroy and Charlotte make such magic together once every five years or so is one of sports’ mysteries. But McIlroy should buy himself a vacation home in Charlotte, because every time his golf career needs a boost, it seems like the Queen City gives him one. Name a record at Quail Hollow and he probably holds it.
And this win now links McIlroy’s name more inextricably with this golf tournament than any other. He already held the course record at Quail Hollow (a 61, in 2015, which broke the record of 62, which he also shared). He already had used Charlotte as his springboard into world headlines before, when he won his first-ever PGA Tour tournament at this very same event.
That was 2010. McIlroy was a baby-faced 20-year-old who shot a startling 66-62 over the final two rounds.
Now McIlroy is 32. He has a wife, Erica Stoll, and they have a baby daughter named Poppy, who was crying at the end of the round due to all the happy commotion surrounding her Dad.
“For it to be Erica’s first Mother’s Day and for her to be here with Poppy — really, really cool,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy’s face is more weathered now, his life is more routine. He’s no longer young enough to be a wunderkind. Although he has won four majors, he isn’t No. 1 in the world golf rankings anymore. He entered this tournament at No. 15 in the world, and he hadn’t won a golf tournament for 18 months until Sunday.
So Charlotte was McIlroy’s first PGA Tour win ever, in 2010, and also his first win ever as a father, in 2021. He won the tournament in 2015, too.
Having a three-time winner like McIlroy is good for Quail Hollow, too — the course benefited from his star power on a day where most of the rest of the leaderboard was obscure to the casual golf fan.
By the time of McIlroy’s rise, Phil Mickelson had long faded, with his sparkly first-round 64 followed by sagging rounds of 75-76-76. The final top five other than McIlroy Sunday turned out to be Ancer, Viktor Hovland, Mitchell and Gary Woodland — household names in their own households, certainly, but not in many other places.
McIlroy only secured his victory on that final hole. The 18th hole is devilish, and it gave up only one birdie the entire weekend.
McIlroy went into the 18th with a two-shot lead over Ancer, who had already completed his round. McIlroy needed all of it. His badly hooked, 300-yard drive almost bounced into the creek that gurgles near the left side of the fairway. The ball stayed dry, but sank into a terrible lie in deep rough.
After much discussion with his caddie, McIlroy ended up taking a penalty drop, which meant he had a better lie, but was still 200 yards from the green and now hitting his third shot.
But from there, McIlroy banged an 8-iron to 44 feet, then two-putted to finish at 10-under-par. McIlroy’s putting was exquisite all week; he never missed from inside six feet.
After that last two-footer, McIlroy wound up like a baseball pitcher to throw the golf ball to the fans. Then he received his trophy, as well as the $1.458-million check that went with it.
“Rory! Rory!” the crowd yelled one last time, and McIlroy went to go hug his wife and daughter.