Rory McIlroy finally won when he least expected it, and it was as sweet as he could have imagined.
Only after he hung on for a one-shot victory in the Wells Fargo Championship, his first title in 18 months, did the golf star from Northern Ireland reveal his neck locked up during his final practice session at Quail Hollow Club — and if not for a late tee time Thursday, he would have been forced to withdraw.
Then, when he seized control Sunday afternoon with back-to-back birdies from the bunker down the stretch, he started to get ahead of himself thinking about how cool it would be to see his wife and 8-month-old daughter waiting to celebrate with him on their first Mother's Day.
The finishing stretch snapped the four-time major winner back to reality. He hit a 7-iron safely over the water on the 17th, and caddie Harry Diamond wisely talked him into taking a penalty drop from a dangerous lie in a hazard on the closing hole. He two-putted from 45 feet for a bogey, a 3-under-par 68 and a one-shot victory at 10-under 274.
The moment with Erica and little Poppy was what he imagined. So was that trophy.
"It's tough to get over the line, especially if you haven't done it in a while," said the 32-year-old McIlroy, a winner at Quail Hollow for the third time and on the PGA Tour for the 19th time. "It's such a funny week, knowing my game was pretty good and then having my neck lock up on the range and sitting here Sunday night with the trophy.
"Just glad I got through it."
Mexico's Abraham Ancer (66) finished runner-up for the fourth time in his career as the 30-year-old seeks his first PGA Tour win. Ancer wasn't part of the picture until he ran off three straight birdies late that briefly gave him a share of the lead, and he nearly closed with a fourth birdie when his 35-foot putt on No. 18 grazed the lip.
One shot behind Ancer were Norway's Viktor Hovland (67) and Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell (72), the 54-hole leader who was unable to complete a seven-day run from worst to first after finishing last while unknowingly playing with a bent putter in the final round of the Valspar Championship one week earlier. His consolation prize Sunday was $477,900 and 163 points in the season-long FedEx Cup standings.
Gary Woodland (71), winless since the 2019 U.S. Open, was fifth at 7 under.
Mitchell was one of two Baylor School graduates who finished near the top of the leaderboard, with Luke List (72) tying for sixth at 5 under. Harris English (74), another former Red Raiders golf star, shared 43rd at 2 over.
It was a tough finish for Mitchell, who started the final round with a two-shot lead and quickly stretched it to three with a 6-iron out of a fairway bunker into a stiffening breeze to 12 feet for birdie. His short game let him down all day, though, leading to bogeys on the fifth and sixth holes that cost him the lead, and on the 14th hole and 15th holes when he had to settle for pars after being in position for birdies.
He needed to finish alone in second to qualify through the money list for the PGA Championship that starts in two weeks at Kiawah Island, but he dropped a shot on the 17th to fall into the tie with Hovland. Mitchell, 29, whose lone PGA Tour win was the 2019 Honda Classic, was paired with McIlroy for Sunday's final round — and impressed by what he saw, according to a report at PGATour.com.
"Shows you how awesome he is as a player," Mitchell said, "because he didn't have his best today and he still won, and that's why he's got majors and a bunch of wins. It's impressive watching that because he had to fight there today, too. The wind was gusting like crazy."
Jaeger shares fifth
COLLEGE GROVE, Tenn. — Austin Smotherman secured his first Korn Ferry Tour title, winning the Simmons Bank Open for the Snedeker Foundation by closing with a 3-under 69 for a three-stroke victory.
The 26-year-old former SMU player finished at 16-under 272 at The Grove.
Paul Haley II (70) and China's Carl Yuan (71) tied for second, with England's David Skinns (72) fourth at 12 under. Tied for fifth were Brent Grant (74) and Stephan Jaeger (70), the former Baylor School and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga standout who will return to the PGA Tour next season — or sooner if he is able to secure his third win this season on the developmental circuit.
Very rewarding win
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With a big comeback and an even bigger putt, Alex Cejka ensured he won't have to wait or play his way into events for a while.
Cejka won the Regions Tradition in only his third PGA Tour Champions start, beating reigning tournament champ Steve Stricker with a birdie on the first hole of a playoff to earn a full exemption for the next two seasons on the 50-and-older tour.
A childhood refugee from communist Czechlosovokia (now the Czech Republic), the 50-year-old Cejka made a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18 and Stricker missed an eight-footer with a chance to extend the playoff at Greystone Golf & Country Club in the tour's first of five majors this year.
Cejka made the field as first alternate when Jay Haas withdrew last Monday. A four-time winner on the European Tour, he won the 2015 Puerto Rico Open for his lone PGA Tour triumph.
On Sunday, Cejka turned a three-stroke deficit into a two-shot lead over the final nine holes for a 5-under 67. His winning putt was from a similar spot to the one Stricker made for a birdie in regulation to force the playoff.
Stricker, who won the Regions Tradition in 2019 — it was canceled last year due to the coronavirus outbreak — closed with a 68 to match Cejka at 18-under 270. Sweden's Robert Karlsson (69) was third at 14 under.
He's in Tiger territory
TENERIFE, Spain — Garrick Higgo matched Tiger Woods' record for quickest to three European Tour or PGA Tour wins since 1990 with a victory at the Canary Islands Championship.
The 21-year-old South African had a hole-in-one on his way to a closing 7-under 64 that secured his third European Tour title, with this one his second in three weeks.
Higgo, who aced the par-3 seventh hole at Golf Costa Adeje and made seven birdies in the final round, finished at 27-under 257 and won by six shots over Australia's Maverick Antcliff (65). Finland's Tapio Pulkkanen (66) was third at 20 under.
This was the 26th event for Higgo. Two weeks ago he won the Gran Canaria Open, setting the European Tour record with his overall score of 255. His other win was the 2020 Portugal Open.
LPGA: Right at home
PATTAYA, Thailand — Ariya Jutanugarn closed with a bogey-free 9-under 63 to win the LPGA Honda Thailand by one stroke, becoming the 14-year-old tournament's first winner from its host country.
Jutanugarn finished at 22-under 266 to edge out another golfer from Thailand, 18-year-old Atthaya Thitikul, who missed a four-foot birdie putt on the final hole with a chance to force a playoff.
Jutanugarn, 25, came close to winning in Thailand eight year ago but lost a two-shot lead on the final hole with a triple bogey that handed the victory to South Korea's Inbee Park.
"Since 2013, it's been one of my biggest dreams to win in Thailand," said Jutanugarn, who has been playing at Siam Country Club since she was 11.
Thitikul, who led from the sixth hole until she made a bogey on the 17th, closed with a 68 as she still managed her best finish on the LPGA Tour.
Thailand's Patty Tavatanakit, the leader after three rounds, shot a 70 to share third with U.S. golfer Angel Yin (66) and two South Korean players who each closed with a 64 — So Yeon Ryu and three-time Thailand winner Amy Yang.