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Throughout his stellar career that is far from finished but destined to include induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Rory McIlroy, the Boy Wonder from Holywood, Northern Ireland, has dealt with his share of hard knocks.

Words he wished he could take back. Off-course adversity that tested his mettle. Slumps here and there. An ankle injury suffered while playing futbol that robbed him a chance of playing the Open Championship on golf’s most hallowed ground, the rumpled landscape of the Old Course at St Andrews, the Home of Golf.

But one of his biggest obstacles he faced head-on began early in 2020.

The four-time major champion and then world No. 1 was in full flight until the COVID-19 global pandemic knocked the world off its axis. McIlroy had ripped off four top-5 finishes in his first four starts of 2020 and was clearly the best player on the planet before the pandemic took substantial root in the US

Following the PGA Tour’s 13-week hiatus as the country tried to find some footing, McIlroy lost his and was unable to discover his best step and top form.

He thought he’d cherish the stillness of the tournaments when play resumed in June of 2020 with fans not allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, but he was thrown by the silence and his game followed along.

“I thought I’d like the peace and quiet when we returned but I missed the crowds,” he said. “I feed off the energy so much.”

Turned out the serenity placed him into an uncomfortable and annoying lull of impatience, indifference, frustration and a maddening battle with his swing. He would go 22 tournaments upon the PGA Tour’s return June of 2020 with zero victories and a lean number of meaningful Sundays.

After missing the cut in the 2021 Masters, which followed Friday trunk slams in The Players Championship and Genesis Invitational, McIlroy determined he needed to get away from the game and took three weeks off.

Well, he didn’t actually take three weeks off. While he was at home in his Florida compound, he brought noted swing coach Pete Cowen on board while staying with longtime coach Michael Bannon to help him sort through swing issues. McIlroy said he grinded the three weeks away from the PGA Tour and felt really good about his iron play. And he eschewed his former bread-and-butter draw with the driver in favor of hitting fades with his biggest weapon.

And he felt good about what was on his horizon – a trip to the Queen City. McIlroy returned from his hiatus at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, NC, one of his favorite tournaments played on one of his favorite courses residing in one of his favorite cities in the world.

It was on the rugged Quail Hollow Club layout where he broke his PGA Tour maiden in 2010, punctuating his victory with a 60-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole, and became the tournament’s only multiple winner with another victory in 2015. He also lost in a playoff in 2012 and had four other top 10s in nine starts heading into the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship.

“This place has been good to me,” he said. “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.”

So despite falling to 15th in the official world golf rankings – his worst standing in more than 12 years – harboring some doubts about his game – he had not played on the weekend in two months – and dealing with the second-longest winless drought of his career – he hadn’t won since the 2019 HSBC Champions in China – McIlroy was in good spirits upon his arrival in Charlotte.

All was good – until it wasn’t.

McIlroy suffers neck pain

On the driving range as he finished his prep work on Wednesday, McIlroy took a swing and his neck locked up. For the grace of the golf gods, he had a late tee time for Thursday’s first round, allowing him, he hoped, enough time to receive treatment that he hoped would unlock the pain.

But as he took to the tee for the first round, McIlroy was just hoping to make it to the weekend to stack more reps into his process of finding his old self again. The pain in his neck had subsided and he posted a 1-over-par 71 in the opening round.

He not only made it to the weekend for the first time in two months, but his second-round 66 also put him on the first page of the leaderboard. His third-round 68 put him in the final group Sunday alongside Keith Mitchell, who held a two-stroke lead and was looking for his second PGA Tour title since earning his first in the 2019 Honda Classic.

Mitchell stretched his lead to three with a birdie on the first. But McIlroy birdied the third and grabbed a share of the lead with a birdie on the seventh. He holed a 10-foot par putt on the par-3 13th, then got up-and-down for birdies with superb bunkers shots on the reachable par-4 14th and the par-5 15th to go up two shots.

Then he survived the final hole.

“It’s never easy to win out here,” McIlroy said about 90 minutes later.

Standing on the 16th tee with his two-shot cushion, McIlroy got a little ahead of himself. He was thinking about snapping his winless drought, thinking about how special it would be to celebrate his victory on Mother’s Day with his wife, Erica, and 8-month-old daughter, Poppy, who were on hand at Quail Hollow Club.

And then the Green Mile snapped him back to reality. That’s the nickname of the punishing three-hole finishing stretch at Quail Hollow Club, a 1,190-yard span of pain consisting of the water-guarded par-4 16th, par-3 17th and par-4 18th.

He made pars on the 16th and 17th and held a two-shot leading standing on the 18th tee – 494 yards away from his wife and daughter, his first victory in nearly 550 days, and a heavy dose of relief and confidence.

Rory McIlroy plays his shot from the 11th tee during the second round of the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club on May 7, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C Tilton/Getty Images)

Penalty seems the best option

Unleashing his tee shot with driver in hand, McIlroy froze. His drive was heading left and towards the long and winding creek that runs nearly the length of the hole and has been home to many ruined scorecards.

The ball avoided the H2O but wound up in a ghastly lie in the deep rough. Upon seeing his ball, McIlroy, his heart racing, began to think of his best options. He considered hitting the ball from where it rested, but it was well below his feet and nearly buried in nasty grass. That’s when his caddy, Harry Diamond, stepped in.

He suggested taking a penalty drop to have a more favorable lie, which would mean hitting his third shot but one that would allow his boss a better chance to try and hit the ball onto the fat part of the green from 200 yards with an 8- iron and then two-putt for the victory.

McIlroy chose correctly. He took the drop, knocked the ball onto the green and then two-putted from 44 feet for his third victory in the tournament – no one else has more than one.

“Harry’s been there every step of the way,” McIlroy said. “The sort of tough parts that I’ve sort of had to endure over the last few months, he’s been with me every step of the way and it’s nice to come through all of that with him and to get into the winner’s circle again.

“Harry was awesome out there, especially that decision on the last. I was ready to get in there and try to play that with a lob wedge and he was sort of like, ‘Let’s take a step back, let’s think about this, where’s the best place you’re hitting your third from.’ So he calmed me down and slowed me down a little bit and said,

‘Pal, let’s just think about this a little bit.’”

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy poses with the winner’s trophy with his wife Erica and daughter Poppy at the Wells Fargo Championship. (Photo: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

Mother’s Day present for Erica

With a final-round 68, McIlroy finished at 10-under 274 for a one-shot victory over Abraham Ancer. Mitchell finished two backs in a tie with Viktor Hovland. It was the first tournament McIlroy’s won three times. It was his 19th PGA Tour title and 27th worldwide. And his first as a father.

McIlroy was clearly moved as he saluted his mother, Rose, and wife and daughter shortly after his winning putt dropped.

“For it to be Erica’s first Mother’s Day and for her to be here with Poppy, really, really cool,” he said. “It was hard for me not to think of that coming down the last few holes and how cool that would be to see them at the back of the 18th green, but I had more pressing issues at the time, so it was pretty easy to get it out of my head. Really cool for them to be here and to be able to celebrate today.”

McIlroy also was very appreciative of the roars returning to golf. After he finished play on the 18th hole, he was serenaded with loud chants of, “Rory! Rory! Rory!”

“It felt like a long time since I won. It just feels awesome,” he said. “There’s been a lot of hard work. I’ve put my head down, I haven’t really looked too much in either direction, I’ve just tried to do what I need to do. For a couple of months there, all that hard work seemed like it was not really getting anywhere, wasn’t providing me with much.

“(Cowen) deserves a good bit of credit for it, for sure. Obviously, Michael Bannon is the one that’s got me all the way to this point, so I’m never going to mention Pete without Michael because Michael deserves a lot of credit, too. Pete and I did some good work last week in Florida and I felt good about my game coming in here, but I wasn’t expecting to come and win first week straight out again. It’s satisfying to see the work is paying off, but it’s just the start.

“There’s so much more I want to achieve and so much more I want to do in the game. But this is, as I said, it’s nice validation that I’m on the right track.”

The vanquished Mitchell paid tribute to McIlroy after the round.

“I loved playing in the last group with Rory, that was a lot of fun,” he said. “Shows you how awesome he is as a player because he didn’t have his best today and he still won and that’s why he’s got majors and a bunch of wins.

“It’s impressive watching that because he had to fight there today.”

The battle continued for McIlroy, 33, as more confrontations remained. Later in the year, he added PGA Tour title No. 20, which earned him lifetime membership on the circuit. But in testament to his magnitude of talent and drive, he has to wait until after the 2022-2023 season for membership to kick in; a player must play 15 full seasons on the PGA Tour.

But it was there in Las Vegas at The Summit where he said he had learned he didn’t have to play perfect to win on the PGA Tour. That he was going to be himself – which, as his record shows, is the envy of most all of his peers.

He’s comfortable in his skin and again inside the gallery ropes as more battles are to be dealt with. One big question he wants to successfully answer is completing the career Grand Slam. Since 2014, when he won his second PGA Championship to go with an Open Championship and US Open, he’s been asked about winning the Masters to join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only players to do so .

The questions will persist until he wins a green jacket. But he is up to the task. He’s in a good place in life, and when he finally kicks his heels up in retirement, he’ll look back to the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship as a key moment.

“To bring out the best in myself,” he said that day of victory, “I needed this.”

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