Rory McIlroy eagled the final hole to clinch his first victory of the season Sunday at the Irish Open, his home tournament where he's famously struggled over the years.
McIlroy's three-shot triumph over Scotland's Russell Knox and Bradley Dredge of Wales wasn't smooth sailing. But the Northern Ireland native prevailed with a 3-under 69, thanks to superior driving power that allowed him to birdie the K Club's first three par-5 holes — then demolish the competition with his final powerful approach shot.
His 253-meter (276-yard) second strike on the 18th landed within three feet of the pin to the deafening cheers of tens of thousands who had braved downpours and hail showers to witness the moment. McIlroy grinned and brushed away a tear or two as he approached the green.
When McIlroy calmly converted his only eagle of the tournament, he stood still and silent for a second. Then he pumped both fists in elation.
"To finish like that today, I'll never forget it," McIlroy said after receiving the crystal winner's trophy beside Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Third-ranked McIlroy long has made winning the Irish Open an elusive priority, his past failures all the more awkward because he's also the tournament's official host and donates his prize money to his Rory Foundation children's charity. He had failed to make the Irish Open cut since 2012. His previous best was seventh place in 2008.
McIlroy looked in danger of squandering his three-stroke lead at the start of Sunday's final round as Knox, playing alongside him, putted impressively while McIlroy wasted opportunity after opportunity on the greens, including a miss for bogey from barely two feet on the par-4 11th hole.
When Knox birdied the 14th and 15th holes to seize a one-shot lead, McIlroy responded with arguably his greatest shot of the year — a go-for-broke drive across the River Liffey that landed improbably in the heart of the 16th green. As the fans roared their approval, a rattled Knox struck his only back-nine bogey as McIlroy two-putted for a go-ahead birdie.
"I was taking a risk. ... It was a huge turning point," said McIlroy, who added it was hard for him to keep his focus "when there's 30,000 people roaring you on. The ovation I got when that ball landed on the 16th green sent shivers down my spine."
Knox agreed it was a pivotal moment, and praised McIlroy's final three holes.
"The shots that Rory hit in the end, he deserves to win. ... Rory hits it further than anyone," said Knox, who is ranked 28th. "That shot that Rory hit on 18 was a joke. What a way for him to finish."
McIlroy nearly birdied the par-3 17th as well. He laughed when the ball circled the cup and rolled a few inches back in his direction.
He now faces three majors in the next 10 weeks — and describes his Irish breakthrough as a needed psychological "catapult" to reclaim his best form.
"I felt I needed a week like this to kick-start something. No better place than back here at home in Ireland," he said.
Ireland's consistently inconsistent weather added another layer of drama.
Lightning storms caused four hours of delays Saturday that forced a dozen players — including McIlroy, Knox and Masters champion Danny Willett — to complete the third round at sunrise Sunday. Their day's combined 21 holes of golf took nearly 10 hours to complete as blue skies gave way to wintry monsoons that left fairways and greens waterlogged and carpeted with hailstones, causing two more suspensions in play.
"We had all the four seasons in one day basically," McIlroy said.
Willett led for the first two days and began Sunday in second place, three behind McIlroy and one ahead of Knox. But Willett, the world No. 9, couldn't break par on a single hole and suffered a collapse in form on the rain-drenched back nine. He twice dropped shots into the Liffey to card a 5-over round of 77, including a double bogey on McIlroy's fateful 16th.
McIlroy joked with journalists over which of his 5-wood fairway shots on to the 16th and 18th greens had been the more impressive. When one suggested that his final approach was superior, McIlroy brought the house down with his reply: "If you were a real golfer, you'd appreciate the 16th."
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