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Rory McIlroy wins at St. George’s; Canadian Open delivers when PGA Tour needed it most

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Sometimes when you find yourself in an uncomfortable spot, you turn out to be perfect for the job.

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The biggest week in Canadian golf began with a sense that the return of our national open was being hijacked by the debut of Greg Norman’s LIV Golf series in England, but it didn’t end that way for the RBC Canadian Open.

Playing in a superstar final group on Sunday at St. George’s in Toronto, Rory McIlroy shot an eight-under 62 to outduel Justin Thomas and Tony Finau and win back-to-back Canadian Opens. It’s the first title defence of McIlroy’s PGA Tour career, and his 21st victory.

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“One more than Norman,” McIlroy said to open his winner’s press conference.

A topic that for weeks had been handled quite diplomatically, ended Sunday with a direct shot at Greg Norman and his Saudi-funded rival tour from the PGA Tour’s biggest flagbearer. Any lingering doubt that the world of professional golf is in an all-out war is over.

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“It feels really good with all the things that were going on in the world of golf this week,” McIlroy said of the win. “For the Canadian Open, a national championship, to have a week like it’s had, three of the best players in the world going at it down the stretch, trying to win in front of those crowds and that atmosphere; that’s what I talked about last week at the Memorial, talking about a proper golf tournament. That’s as top notch as you’re going to get.”

For the second day in a row forecasted storms mercifully held off and the party atmosphere that lifted Saturday’s third round spilled lustily into Sunday’s final round. With the tournament hanging in the balance on the 71st hole, Thomas found St. George’s deep rough on the right side of the fairway. On the left, McIlroy’s drive came to rest in the first cut, inches from the same fate but safe.

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“That was a huge swing,” McIlroy said. “I was trying to err on the left side of the miss rather than the right because I knew that that big tree on the right was going to block you out. … So I just took a line that was a touch further left than that. And as soon as I hit it I knew that it needed to get down. And once I got up there and saw it was in the semi rough I was really happy with that.”

With Thomas forced to punch out, McIlroy delivered yet another beauty in what was a week full of wonderful wedge shots — which aren’t always the Northern Irishman’s strength — leaving him two feet for birdie. Thomas’ pitch on to the green caught one of the course’s devilish ridges and left him with a 15-foot par putt, which he missed. McIlroy tapped-in for birdie to reach 18-under par and the tournament was all but over as he took a two-stroke lead to the final hole.

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The drama being mostly settled before the 72nd hole turned out to be fortunate because after McIlroy stuffed another wedge tight on the 18th, hundreds of overzealous (and over-refreshed) fans stormed the fairway and were nearly on the green before order was restored by volunteers and police.

“It was pretty raucous out there, but it’s really cool,” McIlroy said. “Whenever that happens and you can enjoy your walk and you know you’ve got the tournament sewed up you can take it in and really relish it and enjoy it and it was a cool scene.”

With a birdie on the final hole — his 10th of the day — McIlroy finished the tournament at 19-under par, good for a two shot win over Finau (64), and four clear of Thomas (64) who bogeyed the 18th.

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“Rory played great, he closed it out and hat’s off to him on a week like this,” Finau said. “That’s fantastic playing on the weekend. I played great, he just played a couple shots better.”

Justin Rose (60) and Sam Burns (65) finished tied for fourth at 14-under. Rose unbelievably tied the tournament record despite making three bogeys. The Englishman needed a par on the closing hole to shoot 59, but couldn’t get up and down from the rough behind the 18th green.

“I love playing old classics, I feel like I’ve made my career on playing these kind of tracks,” Rose said of St. George’s. “I love the tactical challenge of them. I love that they keep you honest, man. Fairways, greens, under the hole, take your medicine if you’re out of position. There’s a lot of disciplines this week that you have to honour.”

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Canadian Corey Conners capped off a stellar weekend with a bogey-free 62 to finish in sixth place at 12-under.

“I feel very positively about all parts of my game,” Conners said. “Disappointed to come up a little bit short here, didn’t quite get as much out of the game as I could the first few rounds. But a lot of positive mojo going into the U.S. Open next week.”

It’s hard to overstate how important this week was for the PGA Tour. It’s not hyperbole to say the tour is facing an existential crisis. Professional leagues throughout history have a great track record fending off upstart rivals, but never has a league had to face one with seemingly unlimited funds and no need — or apparent desire — to turn a profit. That is where commissioner Jay Monahan finds himself, and the PGA Tour boss made the trip to Toronto and appeared on Sunday’s CBS broadcast. Facing surprisingly direct questioning from host Jim Nantz, Monahan seemed to stumble out of the gate with an unclear answer as to why players couldn’t simply choose to play both tours. The commissioner steadied as the interview went on and delivered a line that will undoubtedly be a message for the tour going forward.

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“I would ask any player that has left, or any player that would ever consider leaving, ‘Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?’”

For Golf Canada and title sponsor RBC, the week couldn’t have been a bigger success. Record crowds on Saturday, sold-out hospitality, an atmosphere that had players raving, and a course (and setup) that both McIlroy and Thomas said was very much like a major championship.

“We couldn’t have asked for more with the week, especially considering everything that’s swirled around the event, including a rival golf league and the chance of some bad weather,” tournament director Bryan Crawford told Postmedia. “All these things that could have potentially derailed the event but none of them did. They gave it more energy and we reached greater heights.”

After waiting three years for this moment, the RBC Canadian Open delivered on all fronts according to McIlroy.

“It had the golf course; it had the cast of players that you would want to be up there; it had the caliber of golf and it had the atmosphere,” he said. “You had everything this week to have a really top class golf event. Being a part of it, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

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In this war for the future of pro golf, the PGA Tour will be leaning heavily on it biggest stars, its history, and the spirit of competition.

“I think maybe we were the right ones to be up this week,” Crawford said.

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