Rory McIlroy Can’t Catch Dustin Johnson in Mexico Championship

Rory McIlroy Can’t Catch Dustin Johnson in Mexico Championship

February 25, 2019

NAUCALPAN DE JUÁREZ, Mexico — Nine holes into his record-tying round Sunday, Justin Thomas bumped into Rory McIlroy, who was waiting to tee off on the first hole at Club de Golf Chapultepec. He said he asked McIlroy how he thought the afternoon would go.

McIlroy began the final day of the Mexico Championship four strokes behind Dustin Johnson, a deficit that was daunting but hardly insurmountable; the previous Sunday, J. B. Holmes charged from four strokes back to beat Thomas at the Genesis Open.

McIlroy told Thomas it would be hard to catch Johnson because of how well he was playing, a prediction that proved to be hit-the-flagstick accurate. Johnson, who was sixth on the PGA Tour in driving distance last year, ranked first in this week’s field in putting. It was an unbeatable combination as Johnson closed with a five-under-par 66 to finish five strokes clear of McIlroy, who posted a 67.

Johnson’s 72-hole total in this World Golf Championships event outside Mexico City was 19 under. McIlroy finished at 16 under, which would have been good enough to win each of the previous two years that the tournament was held here. On Sunday, all it got McIlroy was a five-stroke cushion over the third-place finishers: Paul Casey (65), Ian Poulter (68) and Kiradech Aphibarnrat (68).

Tiger Woods recorded a 69 to finish in a four-way tie for 10th at eight under.

“It was sort of like there was two different golf tournaments going on and I won the second one,” said McIlroy, who has posted top-five finishes in all four of his tour starts in 2019.

Thomas, who played in the first group off the back nine, took advantage of pristine greens and nonexistent pressure to record a 62, tying his year-old course record, vaulting him into ninth. His score represented a 13-stroke improvement over his final 18 last Sunday at Riviera Country Club.

“I would sure play a lot of money to switch the two,” Thomas said with a smile. “I would gladly take a 50th place this week to win last week.”

Johnson, 34, became the first player since Davis Love III in 2008 to reach 20 PGA Tour titles. “To get 20 wins out here is very difficult, and do it before I turn 35 is pretty incredible,” Johnson said, adding, “This is a big one for me, and it gives me a lot of confidence for the rest of the year.”

Johnson is not lacking for confidence. He has two victories and a tie for ninth in his last four starts. He also extended his streak of seasons with at least one tour title to 12, an emphatic argument for his inclusion among the finest players in the men’s game (Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer share the record at 17, one better than Billy Casper and three more than Woods).

McIlroy, 29, also extended a streak, this one more enigmatic. Since January of last year, he has played his way into the last group for the final round eight times — without emerging triumphant. McIlroy’s lone title run in that stretch came at Bay Hill last March when he started the final round in the next-to-last group.

To mount a charge, McIlroy needed to get off to the kind of hot start engineered by Casey, who teed off four groups ahead and birdied the first three holes. Johnson started shakily, playing the first five holes in one over, but McIlroy, despite making a birdie at the second, could not swing the momentum his way. He did not find a fairway off the tee until the eighth hole and he missed a birdie putt of 11 feet on the first hole and a 6-footer for par on the fourth.

After playing the first nine in one over, McIlroy settled for par on No. 10, which Johnson birdied. At that point, McIlroy said, his caddie, Harry Diamond, told him to forget about trying to catch Johnson and concentrate on consolidating second place.

“I knew at that point that I didn’t have a chance; D. J. was playing too well,” McIlroy said.

McIlroy covered the final eight holes in five under and all he could do was equal Johnson’s final-nine 31.

“I felt like I was standing still,” McIlroy said with a laugh. “I was making birdies and going nowhere.”

The other member of the final threesome on Sunday was Patrick Reed, who was grouped with McIlroy on Sunday at last year’s Masters and claimed the green jacket with a 71 to McIlroy’s 74. That was McIlroy’s second cubic zirconia in the lustrous string. The fourth was the World Golf Championships event in Ohio, where he could not overcome Thomas’s three-stroke advantage. The sixth was the Tour Championship, where he started three behind Woods. The seventh was the Tournament of Champions, where Xander Schauffele shot a 62 to leapfrog into first.

“I’ve played well, I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do and needed to do,” McIlroy said, adding: “My game’s right there. I’m really happy with everything. I’ve just got to stay patient, look at the positives and just keep persisting and putting myself in positions, and sooner or later hopefully it will go my way.”

Golf could not be going much better for Johnson, who became the fifth player to collect 20 wins before his 35th birthday, joining Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller.

“It’s very sweet,” Johnson said. “It’s been a lot of hard to get here, but it feels really good. I’m very proud of myself.”

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