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McIlroy fights back for the unlikeliest of victories

Alex Perry at Wentworth
May 25, 2014 « Under-par Williams advances in Paris | Rashid's burst takes Yorkshire top »
What's next for Rory McIlroy? ESPN.com senior golf writer Michael Collins gives his view

Rory McIlroy pulled off a triumph at the BMW PGA Championship on Sunday that told the world he can put his dramatic personal life to one side.

Here is a man who, just four days after cutting the most crestfallen of figures as he announced his break-up with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki, shot a closing six-under-par 66 to win this tournament for the first time.

"Still," one reporter had joked as the Northern Irishman faced the media and prepared to return to the scene of recent professional disappointments, "at least you're playing at a course you love." Everyone around him laughed, even McIlroy. It looked like it was the first happy moment he had enjoyed in days.

Wentworth is not a place McIlroy likes to play. He has missed the cut on the previous two occasions. Twelve months ago, he said the course did not suit his eye. In 2011, his "mind was elsewhere". He even admitted he only plays as he feels it is his "duty" to the European Tour for their support over the years.

'It's been a weird week'

McIlroy came from seven shots behind © Getty Images
  • Rory McIlroy looked on Sunday evening like a completely changed man to the one who addressed reporters on Wednesday, writes Alex Perry.
  • Gone were the slumped shoulders, the distant look and the slowed speech. McIlroy sat behind his latest trophy - his first as a professional in continental Europe - and gazed at it longingly.
  • "How the hell did this happen?" he said.
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So few could have predicted this outcome. McIlroy's head and, perhaps more importantly, his heart, were in another place.

"Realistically it will be very difficult to win," McIlroy told ESPN on Wednesday. "But once I'm inside the ropes I try and concentrate on the shot in hand."

Against that background the Northern Irishman needed every bit of his focus - and that was before he started the final round seven shots off leader Thomas Bjorn.

On Sunday morning, McIlroy's stoicism had already made him a winner, of sorts. But he improved significantly on that as he took advantage when the performance level of Bjorn - not for the first time - withered.

At the 2005 European Open the Dane had led by four shots through 54 holes before carding an 86 to finish in a share for 34.

McIlroy, of course, wouldn't have known that stat and he made a steady start, recording three pars before a stunning second shot at the par-five fourth. You could have heard a pin drop as he stood over his eagle putt. You could not hear yourself think when it went in.

The crowd erupted again two holes later when a birdie putt fell. Back on the sixth, Bjorn was crumbling to a triple-bogey seven and suddenly there was a sense that the tide was turning.

McIlroy looked like a player with a weight lifted off his shoulders. He had that familiar skip in his step again as he pranced confidently down the fairways in his pink trousers.

He reached the turn in 34 and headed into the back-nine - generally considered the easier of the two halves of Wentworth's sublime West Course - within two of the lead.

McIlroy chipped in at the par-three 10th having missed the green and we saw that broad grin that has become so recognisable over the years.

Just behind him, Bjorn carded another bogey at the ninth and the Dane's challenge was wilting fast.

McIlroy rolled home further birdies at the 12th and 13th holes to move to 12-under par and lead for the first time. It didn't last long though. Shane Lowry overtook him with three straight birdies from the 10th before a double-bogey six at the par-four 13th left McIlroy's fellow Irishman with his head in his hands.

McIlroy took full advantage, clenching his fist as he rolled home a birdie putt at the 17th and getting up and down expertly from the sand at the 18th. It was the first time this week McIlroy had birdied both the finishing par-fives, and it saw him out in 32 to reach 14-under par.

In the tensest of finishes, Luke Donald was suddenly involved. Like Bjorn, the Englishman, champion here in 2011 and 2012, triple-bogeyed the sixth and it looked like his challenge had gone. But birdies at the 10th, 12th and 13th saw him reach 12-under and just two birdies away from forcing a play-off.

Donald dunked his ball in the water at the famous 18th and, watching him blow his chance from the sidelines, McIlroy looked at his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, and smiled. He knew he had done the unthinkable.

Whatever really happened between McIlroy and Wozniacki is anyone's guess. But one thing's for certain, McIlroy is the 2014 BMW PGA champion. And the unlikeliest of victors.

It's been a while since we have seen that broad Rory McIlroy grin © Getty Images
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Alex Perry is an assistant editor at ESPN.co.uk. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexPerryESPN

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