He is not the youngest to get there. Tiger Woods was 24 when he picked up his 20th career PGA Tour title with a 15-shot victory in the U.S. Open, another reminder that Woods was in a league of his own.
Except he wasn’t the Australian whom McIlroy referenced Sunday evening in Las Vegas.
“I remember I turned pro in ‘07 and I went down and played the Australian Masters at the end of that year,” he said. “And the first two days I was paired with Aaron Baddeley. And Aaron Baddeley was - you might have to look this up - but I think he was 18th in the world.”
(That he could remember Baddeley’s world ranking from 14 years ago is remarkable).
“I remember playing with him for the first two days and thinking: ‘Oh my God, this guy is 18th in the world. How cool would that be?’”
It would be pretty cool for an 18-year-old in his second month as a pro, at No. 250 in the world and still 14 months away from his first pro victory. As a 32-year-old who was questioned at the start of the week in Las Vegas why he had fallen to No. 14 in the world? Different story.
“It’s all relative,” McIlroy said.
Mostly it’s about moving forward in a game known to throw careers into reverse every now and again, and McIlroy has not been immune from that.
He was No. 1 in the world in July 2020, and then eight months later he had slipped completely out of the top 10. He has gone 26 majors since winning his last one, the PGA Championship at Valhalla in 2014.
With a talent like McIlroy, there’s always the temptation to ask whether he should have done more. For now, it’s appreciating what - and how many times - he has won.
Among players who have turned pro in the last 20 years, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are the only ones to reach 20 wins on the PGA Tour.
Johnson got there at age 34 when he only had one major. He since has added the Masters, and his PGA Tour count is at 24. McIlroy, who turned pro three months before Johnson, is ahead of him in worldwide victories (28-25).
They have set the target for players behind them like Justin Thomas (14 wins) and Jordan Spieth (12), who both are 28. Then again, Spieth was stuck on 11 wins for nearly four years until winning the Texas Open this year. Thomas has one victory in the last 15 months.
Even for the best, winning doesn’t always come easily.
That might be the biggest lesson for McIlroy from his milestone win. There will be spells when golf feels harder than it should be - his career is marked by such moments - and there’s no reason to reinvent who he is.
McIlroy fell into the trap of following Bryson DeChambeau in a pursuit of more speed in his swing and greater distance, until realizing that wasn’t the answer. And then he spoke in Las Vegas of trying to be a player - no one specifically - that he wasn’t meant to be.
The 20th win came with a reminder that “just being me is good enough.”
He spent the previous week trying to picture the shape of his shots - high and low, fades and draws - to recapture the feeling of his youth.
“I just need to play golf. I need to simplify it. I need to just be me,” he said. “I think for the last few months I was maybe trying to be someone else to try to get better and I sort of realized that being me is enough. And being me, I can do things like this.”
The turning point was one of his lower moments of the year. He had played three matches at the Ryder Cup, all of them losses, none even reaching the 16th hole. McIlroy said he was so down that Saturday night that he “didn’t want to see golf again” until next year.
And then he found purpose in his final match at Whistling Straits, a 3-and-2 win over Xander Schauffele, followed by emotion so strong he could barely speak.
“I went out there and I won my point by doing whatever I could,” McIlroy said. “I wasn’t trying to be perfect, I wasn’t trying to hit shots that I wasn’t comfortable hitting, I just went out there to try to win my match and I did.
“I think part of the emotion at the end of it was to do with that week, but it was also probably to do with the last few months in terms of searching to try to get better and the realization that I don’t need to search for anything,” he said. “It’s all right here.”
And it’s more than enough.
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