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Rory McIlroy has revealed that a neck injury almost forced him to pull out the Wells Fargo Championship on the eve of the event and that it was only the luck of having an afternoon tee-time in the first round that allowed to play in the $8.1 million tournament, which he went on to win on Sunday night.
As if the turnaround in the 32 year-old’s form did not seem dramatic enough. Not only did McIlroy go into that opening day here in Quail Hollow with his worst world ranking in more than 11 years, after missed cuts in his last two stroke play events, but he could "barely make a back swing” a few hours before.
“If I had been playing Thursday morning, I would have withdrawn, but I had enough time to get treatment Thursday morning, get it loosened up," McIlroy said after winning his first title in more than 18 months. “I was on the range on Wednesday and I hit a three‑iron, flushed it and as I turned back to talk to Harry [Diamond, his caddie], the left side of my neck just completely locked up and I couldn’t move it.
“It was really, really strange. I iced it all of Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday night, but I woke up on Thursday and didn’t have much movement. I was trying to make a back swing and could only maybe take it half the way back before it started to catch. Even after the treatment, it was still bothering me. People probably saw the tape that was on my neck on Thursday afternoon, but it sort of loosened up as the week went on.”
McIlroy started with a one-over 72 and at that stage was eight off the pace and more concerned with making the cut than winning for a third time at Quail Hollow. But a 66 and a 68 in the second and third rounds hurtled him into the final group on Sunday and from there he prevailed by a shot over the Mexican Abraham Ancer, courtesy of a 68 and a 10-under total.
McIlroy paid tribute to Pete Cowen, the Yorkshire coach with whom he has been working for just over a month, and also to Dr Bob Rotella. It was unknown that McIlroy had been having sessions with the renowned mind doctor, who has also guided fellow major-winning countrymen such as Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke.
“I've spent some time with Bob Rotella over the last couple of months, but as Pete says, ‘If I don't do my job right, Bob can't do his job right’,” McIlroy said. “It's okay telling yourself to mentally be strong and to mentally play with freedom, but if you know you can't make a swing to hit a fairway... so you need to get the technical part right and then you can dial in the mental. That's sort of the process that I've been on and it’s great to see it pay off so quickly.”
McIlroy also showered praise on his caddie, Harry Diamond, who came in for criticism on social media as McIlroy’s ranking fell to 15 in the world. With a two-shot lead on the 18th, McIlroy hit his drive into a wretched lie near a water hazard but, instead of hacking out, Diamond persuaded him to take a penalty drop. McIlroy listened, proceeded to hit the green with an eight-iron and made the two-putt bogey to take the near £1m cheque.
“Harry was awesome out there today, especially that decision on the last,” McIlroy said. “I was ready to get in there and try to play that with a lob wedge and he said, ‘Pal, let’s take a step back, let’s think about this. Where’s the best place you’re hitting your third from?’ It was the right decision.
“This is my and Harry's sixth win together and it's probably been our best. Bay Hill back in 2018 was great because I hadn't won in a while, but this is even better just because Harry's been there every step of the way. The sort of tough parts that I've sort of had to endure over the last few months, he's been with me through all that and it's nice to come through all that with him and to get into the winner's circle again."
McIlroy moves back into the world top 10 and to the forefront of the betting markets for the season’s second major next week. The USPGA is taking place at Kiawah Island, where McIlroy lifted the Wanamaker Trophy with an eight-shot romp in 2012. McIlroy feels familiarity could breed huge contentment once again.
“Hopefully history repeats itself [at Kiawah] and I can get a lot of confidence from this,” he said. “It’s certainly great timing. This is obviously a huge confidence boost going in there knowing that my game is closer than it has been. I’ll be able to poke holes in everything that I did today and it’s far from perfect. But this one is validation that I’m on the right track.”
How it happened: McIlroy triumphs at Wells Fargo
Quail Hollow would always have held a special place in the McIlroy story anyway, but now the North Carolina layout surely deserves a chapter all of its very own after this dramatic turnaround. At the course where he first broke his US duck 11 years ago, McIlroy returned for another emotional win that could well go on to hold as much resonance.
With a 68 - and a huge fright on the 18th - McIlroy fended off a high quality and, at stages, tightly packed PGA Tour leaderboard to lift his first title in 19 months.
He arrived here at 15th in the world - his lowest ranking since 2009 - and on the back of two missed cuts at the Players and the Masters. But he left that worrying mediocrity behind, with a 10-under total one-shot success over Mexico's Ancer that hauls him back up into the world's top 10.
And with the USPGA taking place next week at a course where he also has a back story - McIlroy won the same major by eight shots the last time it was held at Kiawah Island in 2012 - everything seems possible for the Northern Irishman again. Could a hat-trick of Quail Hollow crowns be followed by a third Wanamaker Trophy, as he finally ends his seven-year majorless run?
For now, that question can wait as McIlroy celebrates his 28th professional win, yet his first as a dad. Cheered on all the way by a passionate crowd who cared not a jot about nationality, McIlroy plainly relished performing again in a rowdy arena. McIlroy hated playing in the sterile environs of the behind-closed-doors era.
“It feels awesome,” McIlroy said. “This is one of my favourite places in the world and to break my drought here is special. It's Mother's Day here in America and I’m thinking of [wife] Erica and Poppy [their baby daughter]. I haven’t won since the end of 2019 and everything has changed in that time. It feels so good to be back.”
In truth, this was not the Rory of old. In fact, it was a Rory we had never seen before, the exact opposite of the driving machine who bludgeoned his way past his rivals off the tee. McIlroy hit only three of 14 fairways in this round and only 19 out of 56 all week. This time it was his putter that effected the damage. The stats show it was one his best weeks on the green in his 14-year career.
It had been an ominous start as Keith Mitchell, the American ranked 249th one the world, birdied the first to move three clear of playing partner McIlroy. But slowly McIlroy reeled him in, hitting it to six feet from 170 yards for a birdie on the third and then holing from 25-feet for a four on the par-five seventh. That took him to nine-under and gave him a share of the lead for the first time all week. After beginning with a 72 he had been eight off the pace.
Just 46 holes later he assumed control when Gary Woodland bogeyed the 12th. Mitchell did draw level again when birdieing the 13th, but so McIlroy marched clear with birdies on the 14th and 15th, courtesy of two fine bunker shots. With Ancer in at nine-under after a 66, McIlroy was confronted by "The Green Mile” Quail Hollow's feared final three-hole stretch.
He negotiated the 16th and 17th without incident, but on the 18th, McIlroy pulled his drive into the creek that divides the fairway. The galleries went silent, but so they soon roared when, after taking a penalty drop, McIlroy found the putting surface from a tricky lie and difficult stance from 196 yards. His two-putt from 42 feet was no formality, but the familiar fist pump said it all.
“Rory, Rory Rory,” the fans shouted and Sir Nick Faldo summed it up perfectly in the CBS commentary booth. “The fans are back and that means Rory McIlroy is back,” Faldo said.
In Florida, Cowen, his new coach, would have been smiling and would obviously be delighted that their six-week relationship has borne fruit so quickly. But there is work to do off the tee. In a tie for third with Mitchell came the brilliant young Norwegian Viktor Hovland, while England’s Matt Wallace enjoyed his second top-six in his last four PGA Tour events, on five-under after a 70.