LAS VEGAS — Rory McIlroy felt as though he had been spinning his wheels for the past five months as he tried to get better on the golf course and instead got nowhere. It took the Ryder Cup for him to realize what he had was always good enough.
And then McIlroy shifted into high gear in Las Vegas.
Starting nine shots behind on the weekend, McIlroy followed a third-round 62 by closing with a 6-under-par 66 for a one-shot victory over Collin Morikawa on Sunday in the CJ Cup at Summit, his 20th career victory on the PGA Tour.
"I know that when I do the things that I do well, this is what I'm capable of," McIlroy said. "It's just a matter of me getting back to playing golf and playing golf my way. That starts with being creative and being visual and maybe sort of sifting through the technical thoughts."
He was creative enough to hit a flop shot over the bunker to a tucked-in hole for an important par save, allowing him to stay tied with a hard-charging Morikawa and move past a fading Rickie Fowler to start the back nine.
And instead of chipping from short of the green on the par-5 14th, he went with his putter and got the pace right to hole a 35-foot eagle to seize control at the Summit Club.
The 32-year-old McIlroy, a four-time major winner from Northern Ireland, is the 39th player to win at least 20 times on the PGA Tour, and it's his fifth straight PGA Tour season with at least one win. That gives him lifetime membership as soon as he completes 15 years as a tour member, which is two seasons away.
"At least I've got the wins," said McIlroy, who also has 14 career victories on the European Tour.
Fowler, who started the final round with a two-shot lead as he tried to end nearly three years without a victory, faded with a pair of three-putts and shot a 71 to tie for third.
"Obviously disappointed, but this is a big step in the right direction with where we've been in the last two years," Fowler said.
The threat came from Morikawa, a Las Vegas resident and Summit Club member, who shot 29 on the front to get in the mix and closed with an eagle for a 62. That forced McIlroy to play mistake-free golf after his big eagle putt on the 14th, and he never came close to a bogey while finishing at 25-under 263.
"It is a big carrot," McIlroy said of the 20 wins. "I didn't know it would be this week."
It was similar to his first win on the PGA Tour in 2010. McIlroy was nine shots behind going into the weekend at the Quail Hollow Championship and closed with rounds of 66-62 to win in Charlotte, North Carolina.
McIlroy now has multiple wins in a calendar year for the seventh time in his career. His other this year was at the Wells Fargo Championship — the name Quail Hollow Club's tournament has gone by since 2011 — in early May.
The turning point might have been his most frustrating moment — 0-3 at last month's Ryder Cup until winning his Sunday singles match. By then, the Americans were well on their way to winning and McIlroy fought back tears in an emotional interview when his match was over.
All he could do was win his point, and he did whatever that took. And a light came on.
"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," McIlroy said. "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, it's all right here."
It was all on display during the weekend at The Summit Club.
Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell, who had a five-shot lead going into the weekend but carded a 73 in the third round, closed with a 67 and tied for third with Fowler.
Fowler was poised to end a 32-month drought as he started the final round with a two-shot lead and looked as though he was intent on finishing it off.
That began to change on the par-5 sixth. From the middle of the fairway, Fowler pulled a fairway metal into the desert, took a penalty drop, and then three-putted from 35 feet for a double bogey. McIlroy made birdie, and just like that they were tied, along with others further along in the round.
On the 10th, where McIlroy saved par, Fowler three-putted from 18 feet to fall back, and he never caught up.
Morikawa ran out of momentum. He put pressure on McIlroy to be sure, but the reigning British Open champion failed to take advantage of birdie chances on the reachable par-4 12th and the par-5 14th with an iron from the fairway.
"Whenever you shoot 62, you're always going to be pleased," Morikawa said. "But I thought I left a few out there, especially with some putts. But overall I'm very pleased the way this last 18 went, especially at a course that I've played a lot. I felt very comfortable, and it's a good way to start the season."
It was even better for McIlroy, who now heads off for a three-month break.