CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In golf’s pandemic world, golf without spectators has often felt like the beach without sun.
For Rory McIlroy, the return of living, breathing souls along the ropes, behind tee boxes and surrounding greens — ever so slowly but increasing week by week — may have been just as important as straightening out the issues in his game.
Some of those remain, but the doubts about winning do not.
Given a boost by what was anecdotally the largest number of spectators to attend a PGA Tour event since the return of golf nearly a year ago, McIlroy overcame a shaky final hole at Quail Hollow to earn his first title in nearly 18 months.
It was his third win at the Wells Fargo Championship — where he got his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 — and 19th of his PGA Tour career. And it might have come with the biggest exhale and most relief.
“It’s never easy,” McIlroy, 32, said afterward. “It felt like a long time since that victory in China. The world is a different place than it used to be.
“And a lot has changed for me. I’m a dad now, and to break the drought and win here again is special.”
McIlroy was on the verge of tears afterward, and that’s saying something for a guy who never seemed that far away but nonetheless had done quite the tumble since getting to No. 1 in the world early in 2020.
That was pre-pandemic. McIlroy has been the first to admit he has not been the same since returning from a 13-week shutdown last year. He remained No. 1 when golf resumed but slipped all the way to 15th this week — his lowest spot in the Official World Ranking since 2009. He’s now seventh.
“It’s awesome to play in front of these people again,” McIlroy said. “When we came back from the pandemic [break], I thought I’d enjoy the peace and quiet a bit. But I learned I needed this. I feed off the energy so much. The crowd has been awesome all week. I really think they helped me.”
McIlroy’s strength has always been driving, and there is still work to be done in that area. He spoke earlier in the week about trying to go with a consistent left-to-right fade off the tee — one that instead saw him often hooking the ball into the rough.
The four-time major champion hit just 3 of 14 fairways on Sunday and only 19 of 56 for the week. And no miss was more harrowing than the one on the 18th hole, where he hooked his tee shot into a hill and saw it kick right almost in the water.
McIlroy determined that the ball was unplayable, took a penalty drop, then hit an 8-iron 196 yards to the green. It led to his only bogey of the day. Still, two putts were enough for a satisfying victory.
His last win came at the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions in China, part of a run that saw him finish among the top-5 in seven consecutive tournaments through the 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
That happened to be the last tournament prior to the pandemic shutdown. When McIlroy returned, he posted just three top 10s the rest of the year and was never in serious contention.
This year, after a promising start in Abu Dhabi where he finished third, it was more of the same. He missed the cut at the Players Championship and the Masters and didn’t make it to the weekend of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
“Rory is a high energy guy who needs the energy that crowds bring,” friend Graeme McDowell said. “And I think he’s missed that. This has been a strange time for everyone.”
Before the Masters, McIlroy also brought on a new set of eyes. In came veteran coach Pete Cowan, who has worked with several players, including Henrik Stenson, and later Brooks Koepka, McDowell, Woodland and Padraig Harrington.
“Ferraris need servicing,” Cowne said. “Great art needs cleaning. Great time pieces need winding. (There was) not a long wrong (with McIlroy).”
While McIlroy’s driving accuracy was poor, he was second in the field in strokes gained tee to green and 10th in strokes gained approach to the green. He hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation Sunday and 54 of 72 for the week, both exceptional numbers.
And he putted well. Often the aspect that holds McIlroy back, his putting was good enough to be third in the field. He had 29 putts in every round.
“I’ve been following Rory’s career since he was 15 and dominating the Irish amateur scene and to where he was and where he is now … all professional golfers, all of us, ebb and flow in and out of form,” said Ireland’s Paul McGinley, the 2014 European Ryder Cup captain. “It doesn’t matter who it is — Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods. And it’s happened to Rory. Only 17 months ago he was heading toward No. 1 off the back of winning the FedEx [Cup].
“He’s an inspirational player. Where does it come from? Sometimes it comes from a plummet down the world ranking. Or maybe a new putting idea. Or a different ball flight. All of those things instigate a flurry of form.”
As it turns out, McIlroy’s motivation may simply have been derived from the noise outside the ropes.
“I’m certainly glad that the crowds were back and I’m glad that I was able to get the job done in an atmosphere like that today,” he said. “And I’m excited going forward now that we get to play in front of crowds like that. It was just an awesome experience to feel that again over the weekend.”
Next up is the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, where McIlroy won by eight strokes in 2012 for the second of his four major titles. That is a lifetime ago in golf terms, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to go back to the place of previous success.
More importantly, he heads into the major championship with recent success.
“It’s certainly great timing,” he said. “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, it’s certainly far from perfect, but this one is validation that I’m on the right track.”