By Wes Kerr
RIDGELAND – On a flawless Lowcountry afternoon at Congaree Golf Club, Rory McIlroy showed his mettle — and his greatness — to ascend back to the top of the golf world.
McIlroy caught fire down the stretch, making four birdies in a challenging five-hole span to fend off a gritty effort from Kurt Kitayama and claim a one-shot victory with a 17-under 267 to successfully defend his CJ Cup crown.
“Everything seems like it came together for me, and today was just a continuation of how I’ve been playing over these last few months,” McIlroy said. “I knew I needed to go out there and shoot a good score. I knew if I went out there and shot even par, it wasn’t going to get it done, but I knew there were opportunities, right? There’s the three par-5s and the two drivable par-4s, so if you take care of those and you try and navigate the rest of the way, and if you play solidly enough, hopefully that was going to be enough and ultimately it was.”
It’s a remarkable 23rd PGA Tour victory in McIlroy’s storied career, and it jumps him back to the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, capping off a stellar 2022 that included a FedEx Cup championship.
The stage was set for an epic duel between McIlroy and fellow top-five golfer Jon Rahm, and the two stars both charged out of the starting blocks. Rahm took advantage of the early par-5s, making birdies on the second and fourth holes to keep up with his rival. McIlroy found some trouble on the third after missing badly off the tee and catching his approach heavy from a waste bunker to the right of a group of trees, but his elite skills around the green and a clutch putter helped him save a key par.
Rahm responded on the par-3 fifth with a dazzling tee shot just nine feet from the hole before converting his birdie, but he gave it right back with an ugly three-putt on the sixth. The pendulum quickly swung back to McIlroy with a breathtaking shot on that sixth hole, leaving his approach just under four feet from the cup to set up an easy birdie for a two-shot lead at 16-under par.
It was looking like full speed ahead for the reigning FedEx Cup champion, but things started to get nervy after two missed putts from inside 10 feet on the eighth and ninth, and one of his pairing partners began to pick up steam. After starting the final round just one back of McIlroy’s lead, Kitayama finished up his steady front half with a key birdie on the ninth to get to -15 and join a tie at the top with McIlroy at the turn.
Rory was far from consistent off the tee, but he continued to work some magic with his iron play. After pulling his drive to the trees on the left side at 11, McIlroy ripped the ensuing shot 191 yards onto the green to convert a key par save. He misfired again to the left on the par-5 12th but beautifully stuck his second shot on the edge of the putting service before two-putting for birdie to match Kitayama’s score and maintain a tie at 16-under par as Rahm lurked one back.
The 14th was the make-or-break hole in last year’s Palmetto Championship, and the script was looking similar on Sunday. It’s a par-3 that requires a near-flawless first shot to keep the ball on the green. And McIlroy played it perfectly. The 23-time PGA Tour winner displayed his elite ball-striking in the clutch, knocking a 5-iron to 13 feet before draining a tough right-to-left putt to nab the solo lead at 17-under par.
“I think that the birdie on 14 was really the — that’s what separated — the birdie on 14 was big,” McIlroy said. “I feel like being able to fall back on your putting, it takes pressure off your iron play, it takes pressure off your short game, it takes pressure off your driving.”
Kitayama was down a shot but had a chance to get it right back after driving the green on the
366-yard par-4 15th, but the opportunity slipped away with a tough three-putt while Mcilroy delivered another beauty from the sand to set up a 5-foot birdie. Rory was in command with a two-shot lead over Kitayama with three holes to play as Rahm struggled to find his composure down the stretch and faded out of contention.
The pro-Rory crowd had even more to cheer about on 16, as McIlroy delivered his third birdie in a row on a brillant 21-foot putt to erupt the gallery — and put the fan favorite on the verge of the title at 19-under par. With a sizable three-shot lead in hand, McIlroy went into a conservative approach on 17, but a pair of visits to the waste area led to a bogey to cut the margin to just two.
The door swung open again for Kitayama if he came up big on the finishing hole. He hit the green about 22 feet away from the flagstick to set up a putt that would put pressure on the leader, but it just fizzled wide to extinguish his hopes of a comeback. McIlroy made it dramatic down the stretch with a missed 8-foot par putt, but he tapped in for bogey to hold off Kitayama by a single shot and successfully defend his CJ Cup crown.
“Yeah, on 18 when it ran eight feet by, Kurt had a good look for birdie there and thankfully for me it ran by on that left side, so it made it a little less stressful,” McIlroy said. “This was a great week for (Kurt). He hung in there the entire day. A couple of putts just slid by on him coming down the stretch and that really was the difference.”
South Korean K.J. Lee took solo third place at 15-under par, and Rahm (-14) tied for fourth with Tommy Fleetwood after firing a 6-under 65. Former UNLV star Taylor Montgomery (-9) made waves with a low score on Sunday, posing a blazing 9-under 62 to match Congaree’s course record set by Rahm on Friday.
Lowcountry golf fans couldn’t have asked much more from a Sunday afternoon at Congaree. The weather conditions were ideal, and we were treated to a breathtaking show from the now-undisputed top golfer in the world. It was a special tournament with a special champion who has once again scaled his sport’s summit, and Congaree Golf Club once again proved a spectacular setting.
Wes Kerr is a graduate of Hilton Head Island High School and Davidson College. He reports on local sports for LowcoSports.com