PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – His best swing was followed by his biggest drive, both setting up birdies, and from there Rory McIlroy knew how to finish.
Suddenly staked to a one-shot lead, McIlroy had a 125-yard walk along the water to the 17th hole to face an island that never looks smaller than on Sunday at the Players Championship, followed by the toughest hole on the TPC Sawgrass with water down the entire left side.
"Just make three more good swings … and this thing is yours," McIlroy kept telling himself.
He delivered in a major way.
McIlroy made two late birdies to regain the lead, was at his best when the pressure was the highest, and he closed with a 2-under 70 for a one-shot victory over Jim Furyk in his 10th appearance at the Players.
"To step up and make those three good swings, it's very satisfying knowing that it's in there when it needs to be," McIlroy said.
McIlroy could not afford a mistake over the final hour because of Furyk, the 48-year-old former Ryder Cup captain who nearly pulled off a stunner. Furyk, one of the last players to qualify for the strongest field in golf, capped off a 67 with a 7-iron into the 18th so good that he started walking when he hit it. The ball plopped down 3 feet from the hole for a birdie to take the lead.
But not for long.
Coming off a careless bogey on the 14th, McIlroy thought he was in trouble when his tee shot went well to the right toward a clump of native grass. He was lucky it came down into the bunker, and from there he drilled a 6-iron from 180 yards.
McIlroy called it "the best shot of the day, by far," and it settled 15 feet behind the hole for a birdie to tie. Then, he blasted a 347-yard drive — the longest of the day on the par-5 16th — into a good lie in the rough that left him a 9-iron to 20 feet for a two-putt birdie and the lead.
Most important, he found dry land on the 17th with a 9-iron and hammered a tee shot down the 18th fairway to set up the win.
He finished at 16-under 272 and earned $2.25 million, to date the biggest winner's check in golf.
It wasn't easy. Eight players had at least a share of the lead at some point, and a dozen players were separated by two shots at various times.