‘Raucous’ fans go wild as McIlroy defends Canadian Open title

TORONTO — As Rory McIlroy was about to knock in a four-foot putt to defend his Canadian Open title, hundreds of fans who’d rushed as close as security would let them get to the 18th green — some fans stood in bunkers, and one declared, beer-in-hand: “I love you so much, Rory!” — waited for the field to make it official.

McIlroy rolled in that four-footer and the thousands of onlookers who’d been asked to stay “quiet, please” immediately erupted, chanting “Rory! Rory! Rory!” for hardly the first time on Sunday at St. George’s G&CC.

“Well, it was pretty raucous out there,” a grinning McIlroy said when it was all over, sitting beside that shiny silver Canadian Open trophy, where his name will be etched for a second time. “I mean, the fans here this week have just been absolutely unbelievable. Like so good and so cool to play in an atmosphere like that. Boisterous, loud, but respectful. It was really, really cool.”

McIlroy is now a perfect 2-for-2 in Canada, having played here twice and won both times. And yes, he would gladly accept an honorary Canadian citizenship if anyone wants to offer that up. On Sunday, he won the RBC Canadian Open in as back-to-back fashion as possible, with a two-year gap between wins because of tournament cancellations due to COVID-19.

This was McIlroy’s 21st title on the PGA Tour, and he won it by two strokes over American Tony Finau and four over Justin Thomas, who presented the biggest threat of the day in the late going.

“It means an awful lot,” McIlroy said. “I feel like it’s getting tougher and tougher to win on the PGA Tour. Even, just look at the two guys that I played with today. I went out with a lead and had to shoot 8-under to get the job done. So the depth of talent on this Tour is really, really impressive. And going up against guys like JT and Tony and coming out on top, that’s something to feel really good about.

“So super happy to get that 21st win, to defend, even though it doesn’t feel like a defense because it’s been so long,” he added.

Those aren’t the only reasons this one meant an awful lot to McIlroy. Given what’s happening in the world of golf, with players like Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson jumping ship for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational, McIlroy really wanted this one. And especially since LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman only won 20 times on Tour, a fact McIlroy repeated quite a few times after he earned No. 21.

“Yeah, I wanted it a lot. I wanted it at the start of the day and there was a few different incentives in there,” he said, one being to edge Thomas and Finau.

“And then, look, I alluded to it, I had extra motivation with what’s going on across the pond,” McIlroy said. “The guy that’s spearheading that [LIV] TOUR has 20 wins on the PGA Tour and I was tied with him and I wanted to get one ahead of him. And I did. So that was really cool for me, just a little sense of pride on that one.”

McIlroy was very noticeable on Sunday. Wearing a combination of hot pink up top and aqua blue on the bottom — he made that shirt and pants combo work — it really felt like he owned the day at the start.

The “Rory!” chants began on the first hole, when McIlroy drained his first of 10 birdies with a 26-foot putt. When he chipped one in on No. 6 — his third birdie of the day — he put his club in the air and nodded, straight-faced, all clinical-like, as the crowd roared.

There was a pop in McIlroy’s already confident stride as the day wore on. He pumped his fist on No. 12 after he drained an incredible 39-footer for birdie that left a lot of fans with their jaws open. He was -19 then, with a three-stroke lead.

But McIlroy opened the door with his first misstep of the day a hole later when he missed a short putt and carded his first bogey. He talked to the hole after that miss. Thomas, the world No. 6, began the day two back and recorded six straight birdies on Sunday. He carded another on 14, and after McIlroy stumbled on 16 with a bogey on the famed Rink Hole, he and Thomas headed to No. 17 all tied up.

“I let them back in a little bit after I got the three-shot lead with a couple of missed short ones,” McIlroy said.

But on 17, McIlroy went back to owning the day. He chopped his approach shot on 17 out of the short rough and stuck it to two feet for a tap-in birdie. Thomas faltered there with his first bogey of the day, giving McIlroy a two-stroke lead heading to 18. And the Northern Irishman took full advantage, again sticking his approach to a few feet for the tap-in win.

As he walked up the fairway with that confident pop in his step, McIlroy raised his putter in the air in recognition of the fans he’d been clapping all week long.

But before McIlroy drained his winning putt, Finau put one in from 42 feet, and got the crowd going. “They were definitely ready to get after it this week,” Finau said of the Canadian crowds. “The fans were crazy.”

Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., got a lot of support this week, and on Sunday he soared up the leaderboard, carding a bogey-free 8-under-par 62 to earn himself a sixth-place finish. It was by far his best day at St. George’s, and a nine-stroke improvement on his opening round here Thursday. “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,” Conners told media, afterwards. “But a lot of positive mojo into the US Open next week.”

The man with the most positive mojo heading into the major, of course, is McIlroy. The last player on Tour to win a tournament and then go out and win a major the next week? It was McIlroy, back in 2014.

As for that scene on the 18th green, McIlroy has seen fans rush out past security before, and he was just an onlooker then, playing alongside Tiger Woods in 2018 when the latter earned his first win in five years. This time, he was more than just an onlooker.

“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,” he said. “It was a cool scene on 18.”

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