MCCARTHY: Rory is back, wins Wells Fargo ... Another ace for Canadian Conners!

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The crowds are back, and so is Rory McIlroy.

Playing in his first tournament since missing the cut at the Masters, the Northern Irish star won for the first time in a year-and-a-half, shooting a 3-under-par 68 on Sunday to finish at 10-under par and claim the Wells Fargo Championship by one stroke over Abraham Ancer.

McIlroy, who turned 32 earlier in the week, said the win was a mix of relief and satisfaction.

“Relief that I’ve won again, relief that my season I feel is sort of back on track, and more just satisfaction at the journey that I’m on and the process that I’ve been going through to try to get back to this point,” he said after his round. “There’s been a lot of hard work. I’ve put my head down. I haven’t really looked too much in either direction, I’ve just tried to do what I need to do.”

There were a limited number of spectators on hand at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., but it was as close to a pre-pandemic tournament experience as the golf world has seen since the PGA Tour’s re-start last June.

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“I thought I’d like the peace and quiet when we returned but I missed the crowds,” he said. “I feed off the energy so much.”

McIlroy is a fan favourite everywhere he goes, especially at Quail Hollow where he won his first tour event in 2010 as a 20-year-old. McIlroy also won the Wells Fargo Championship there in 2015.

“This place has been good to me,” he said. “Ever since I first set eyes on this golf course, I loved it.”

McIlroy nearly didn’t tee-off on Thursday after straining his neck practising on Wednesday. During his winner’s press conference on Sunday, he said that had he had a morning tee time on Thursday rather than an afternoon time, he likely would have withdrawn.

On Sunday, bogey-free through 17 holes, McIlroy took a two-stroke lead to the 18th but hooked his tee shot at the par-4 into a hazard left of the fairway. Initially, it looked as though the leader had caught a break when he found his ball in the rough instead of in the creek that runs the length of the hole, but his lie was so poor he opted to take a penalty drop. Playing his third shot, McIlroy hit an iron from 200 yards onto the green and two-putted for bogey and his 19th PGA Tour win.

Going into the week McIlroy had fallen to 15th in the world — his lowest ranking in more than a decade — and after making the cut on Friday he said he was happy just to play the weekend after missing the cut at the Players Championship and the Masters, his previous two stroke play events. McIlroy has been working hard at his home in Florida with new swing coach Pete Cowen.

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“I wasn’t expecting to come and win first week straight out again,” he said. “It’s satisfying to see the work is paying off, but it’s just the start. There’s so much more I want to achieve and so much more I want to do in the game.”

The low round of the day was a five-under 66 shot by Ancer, who birdied three of his final four holes. It’s the fourth runner-up finish for the world No. 26 who is still looking for his first win on tour.

“It gets me pumped up knowing I’m performing well on golf courses that are big venues,” Ancer said of Quail Hollow. “Kiawah’s just a couple weeks from now and that’s a big golf course as well. I’m pretty pumped to see how my game stacks up out there.”

Ancer was referring to the PGA Championship which begins May 20 at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in neighbouring South Carolina. The last time the Ocean Course hosted the PGA Championship was in 2012 when McIlroy won by a record eight strokes.

“It’s certainly great timing,” McIlroy said. “This is obviously a huge confidence boost going in there knowing that my game is closer than it has been.”

Viktor Hovland and Keith Mitchell finished one stroke behind Ancer, tying for third at 8 under. Gary Woodland finished solo fifth at 7 under.

O CANADA
Somebody tell the Tim Hortons in Listowel, Ont., to break out the Corey Conners’ Hole-in-One donuts again. Conners made his second ace in a month on Sunday at the Wells Fargo, holing a 254-yard hybrid on the long par-3 sixth hole at Quail Hollow.

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Last month the Canadian made a hole-in-one at Augusta National’s sixth hole during the third round of the Masters, and his hometown Timmies celebrated with a custom donut complete with green sprinkles and a white Timbit in the hole.

Conners shot a 1-over-par 72 on Sunday and finished the week tied for 43rd at 2-over.

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Two-time PGA Tour winner Nick Taylor was the top Canadian this week, shooting a 2-under 69 on Sunday to finish tied for 26th at even par.

Roger Sloan and Michael Gligic both finished tied for 58th at 5-over. Adam Hadwin, Mackenzie Hughes and David Hearn missed the cut.

CHAMPIONS CHAMPION
It was a major championship week on the PGA Tour Champions, as the 50-and-over crowd competed in the Regions Tradition where rookie Alex Cejka defeated defending champion Steve Stricker in a playoff at 18-under par.

Stricker rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force the playoff, but the 50-year-old Cejka birdied the first extra hole to claim his first Champions Tour title.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s like the first win on the PGA Tour,” Cejka said. “Everybody grinds for so many years, and it’s just incredible right now. I have no words. I’m so happy.”

Cejka, a golf world traveller, has won on the PGA Tour, the European Tour, the European Challenge Tour, what’s now the Korn Ferry Tour, and now the PGA Tour Champions.

Canadian Stephen Ames finished tied for 10th at 7 under. Mike Weir, who was fresh off his first Champions Tour win, finished tied for 25th at level par.

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