Rory McIlroy made his first visit to Canada a memorable one, winning the RBC Canadian Open in a runaway and giving the resurgent tournament a most popular champion.
The Northern Irishman was starting to gain a reputation as a player who couldn’t close the deal, despite his prodigious talent and impressive résumé that includes four major titles. Between January, 2018, and March of this year, he was in the final group on a Sunday nine times but didn’t leave with a trophy. “Rory McIlroy has become a bad pressure player,” Golf Digest said this winter. “There, we’ve said it.”
But there was no inkling of those shortcomings on Sunday at Hamilton Golf and Country Club, as he started a birdie barrage early with a kick-in on the first hole and four others over the next six.
Wearing a habenero red shirt that seemed close enough in colour to the Maple Leaf for Canadian fans, and marking his ball on the greens with a lucky loonie, he continued to widen his lead all afternoon, flirting with golf’s magic number of 59 before finishing with a nine-under-par 61 and an impressive seven-shot victory.
This was the McIlroy of a few years ago who can dominate both a golf course, with his length, and a field.
“I just played with a little more freedom and that was it,” McIlroy said after capturing his sixth different national championship and becoming the third man to win the U.S., British and Canadian Opens over his career. “I was a little more aggressive. That was really it … just putting my foot down and making the tournament mine.”
He hasn’t enjoyed such a romp since his victory at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2015, also by seven shots. He’s also won a PGA Championship by eight.
“I’ve been playing well basically all year,” said McIlroy, who won the Players this year and has placed in the top 10 in every tournament in 2019 except two. “Been giving myself loads of chances to win. The criticism might have been that I haven’t won enough, but hopefully today with just winning, but the way I won, that gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”
A confluence of events led the 30-year-old to make his Canadian debut. He decided to change his playing itinerary this year to focus more on PGA Tour events in North America.
At the same time, the Tour reorganized its entire schedule. In one of the many changes, the Canadian Open moved to June from the last week in July – and more important, into the slot before the U.S. Open.
McIlroy was careful to say all week that he came to Hamilton to win a respected tournament that goes back 110 years. But it was also clear that Hamilton was a tuneup for the U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Pebble Beach in California.
He added a fourth wedge to his bag, for example, to give him more options at Hamilton, which is short by PGA Tour standards at just less than 7,000 yards. Pebble is of a similar length and he’ll take the extra scoring club with him there.
That decision paid off. His length – he was first in strokes-gained off the tee at the Canadian Open – set him up for short approaches. No more symbolic of that was the first hole, at which he ripped a 353-yard shot (the longest of the day by any player) and bounced his approach shot off the flagstick.
McIlroy said going into the fourth round that he would be hard-pressed to repeat the six-under 64 he shot Saturday to vault him into a share of the third-round lead. Thinking the soft course would continue to dry out and be more of a challenge, he projected he’d need a Sunday score of “at least 67, 66 to get the job done.”
But those sentiments seemed quaint by midway through his round Sunday. In full command of his ball flight, he was so far in front through the turn that he started calculating on the 14th hole what he needed to shoot 59.
A bogey on the par-three 16th hole seemed to end the bid, but a near tap-in eagle on the 17th renewed his quest. He needed a birdie on the final hole – he admitted to nerves standing over his 6-iron approach – but settled for a bogey.
“Yeah, had a chance to shoot 59,” he said. “Sorry for being disappointed up here, but I had a chance,” he added with a chuckle.
The bogey took him to 61 and a four-day total of 22-under 258, a tournament record.
Shane Lowry had a strong day himself, carding a 67 and tying third-round co-leader Webb Simpson for second place.
Simpson and Matt Kuchar shared the lead with McIlroy going into Sunday, while Brandt Snedeker and Canadian Adam Hadwin were among a trio a stroke back. Fellow Canucks Nick Taylor and Mackenzie Hughes were also in the top-10.
Hadwin shot 70 and finished in sixth place. His consolation prizes were the Rivermead Trophy as low Canadian and a berth in the Open Championship. Graeme McDowell also gained a spot in the field at the Open, which will be held in his hometown of Portrush, Northern Ireland.
But the runners-up were afterthoughts as McIlroy rolled along and the Canadian fans, already in a national fervour with the success of the Toronto Raptors, cheered when McIlroy donned an autographed Kyle Lowry jersey.
Tournament organizers and sponsor Royal Bank of Canada would never publicly root for any particular player, but they had to like what they saw heading into the final round. In addition to McIlroy, one of the few golfers whose popularity transcends the sport, there were a handful of players sponsored by RBC in the hunt and there was also the prospect of the first Canadian winner in 65 years.
The glut of Canadian talent at the top and all the tantalizing champion possibilities were icing on the cake for a national championship that got a big bump this year with a move to June and a relocation to Hamilton, a classic course that received nothing but raves all week despite its short length and vulnerability to low scores.
The tournament took on a festival atmosphere, too, as the RBC added concerts to the postgame program on Friday and Saturday, both of which days were sellouts. The Canadian Open also continued its nascent tradition The Rink, with dasher boards set up around a par-three hole (the 13th this year) to mimic a hockey arena.
McIlroy birdied the hole after soaking up the borderline rowdy greeting he (and other players) got entering the tee box, with fans pounding fists on the boards and breaking into chants that included “Let’s go Raptors.”
The basketball cheering might have seemed out of touch in a faux hockey rink at a golf tournament but somehow it made sense. McIlroy left the 18th green with a Lowry’s Raptor jersey over his shoulder. He’s an honorary Canadian now, at the least.