McIlroy leaves disappointed as Koepka claims victory in Phoenix

Bernie McGuire
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McIlroy leaves disappointed as Koepka claims victory in Phoenix

Rory McIlroy (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Rory McIlroy headed home ‘disappointed’ once more after another nearly week, this time in his maiden appearance at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

McIlroy spent three and three-quarter rounds playing catch-up after being three-over after just two holes on day one before an all-too-late storming up the board with nine birdies in a sizzling last day 64 for a 13-under par total on the TPC Scottsdale course.

Fellow four-tme Major winner, Brooks Koepka won the event after a storming finish that saw him play his last six holes in five-under. A hat-trick of birdies from the 13th saw Koepka emerge from the pack to contend but it was a stunning chip-in for eagle on the short par-4 17th that catapulted him to 19-under par. His final round 65 lay down an early gauntlet in the clubhouse and it was a target that nobody could match; KH Lee and Xander Schauffele sharing second a shot behind at 18-under with Jordan Spieth, Steve Stricker and Carlos Ortiz at minus-17.

“I always thought I had a chance,” said Koepka. “I felt like the front nine I was just hanging in there. I think 2 kind of woke me up a little bit on 3 three, helped me there. I think on 12, Ricky said something to me about, We’re right there. We just need a little bit of momentum or a putt to go or way. Never know what’s going to happen.

“I like the way I finished that off. Hit a lot quality golf shots down the stretch. I haven’t been in contention in God knows how long, so to actually hit golf shots like I’m accustomed to seeing when the pressure is on, it’s a good feeling.”

It was a second Phoenix title for Koepka but a particularly sweet one for the now 30-year old who has been battling a persistent knee injury for the best part of 18 months in his bid to regain full fitness.

“There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same, whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was,” Koepka revealed. “My knee, no matter how much work and pain I was doing with Derek, my trainer, it just felt like it wasn’t progressing. And that’s the frustrating part, when you feel like it’s not going anywhere.

“But we stuck with it. Those dark places, a lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally. You’ve got to come out of that. I spent so much time in La Jolla with Derek where I kind of used it as refresher to reset things. I’ll tell you what, it takes a lot of effort just to get out of those places.”

As for McIlroy, he dropped a shot early on day four but then brilliantly put together a run of seven birdies in nine holes from his fifth to 13th holes. He dropped a shot at his 14th and closed off with birdies at his 15th and 17th holes before a closing par and a round of 64.

“It’s sort of been disappointing,” McIlroy said. “I had two very pedestrian rounds and played a little better on Friday and then I played better today. I putted better. I really struggled on these greens to read them more than anything else.

“And today I just sort of went a little bit more — with greens that I haven’t seen before, I’ll use the green book a bit, and I did that for three days and didn’t really work, so I just sort of went with my eyes and my gut today and it helped. So, yes I sort of maybe trusted it a little better and holed some putts, which was nice.”

And while back home for the week within his palatial abode at the Bear’s Club in Florida, it will not be just wife Erica and baby daughter, Poppy that will keep him busy.

“I’m going to get the ‘Plane Perfecter’ out, that little machine I have, and work on that. I’m getting way too steep in the downswing, and hitting a lot of pulls and a lot of sort of weak cuts,” he said

“So, I’ll work on that, try to get the club more out in front of me on the way back and try to shallow it a little bit on the way down. And then just a bunch of putting. I’ll work hard next week. Got a week off and four in a row coming up, so it was nice to end, go into a week off playing like I did today, but I still got a lot of work to do.”

The organisers’ desire to get the final round completed before the start of the Superbowl meant a two-tee final round arrangement with McIlroy the second group out from the 10th. It was the second day running McIlroy was starting on 10 and after dropping a shot at the 11th, he started making inroads with birdies at 14 (13-feet), 15 (bunker shot to 5-feet), 17 (15-foot chip-in from back of the green), 18 (8-feet) to make the turn at three-under and nine-under in total.

McIlroy finally got into double figures with a remarkable up-and-down from the steep upslope of a fairway bunker from 125-yard out, to land his second shot just five-foot from the pin, setting up a birdie at the par-4 second or the 11th hole of his day. And then he moved inside the top-20 for a first time all week two-putting from the fringe at his 12th hole, or the third on the card, to move to five-under for his round and 11-under for the event.

McIlroy made it a hat-trick of birdies in landing his tee shot six-feet right of the pin at the par-3, moving to 12-under par, then three shots from a share of third. He birdied his 13th hole to make seven birdies in nine holes and while he dropped a shot at his 14th, McIlroy birdied his 15th and 17th hole before a closing par.

The effort of a 64 was McIlroy’s lowest since a third-round similar score on route to victory in June 2019 at the Canadian Open. McIlroy has this week off electing not to return to the US West Coast for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am given the decision not to allow amateur partners due to continuing coronavirus concerns. He will return to the Tour for the following week’s February 18th to 21st Genesis Invitational.

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