HARTFORD, Conn. – U.S. Open week is finally upon us, but the 156 players in the 122nd national championship at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., will be hard pressed to surpass what transpired Sunday in the finale of the return of the RBC Canadian Open.
And officials of the Travelers Championship the week after the U.S. Open had to be plenty interested in what was occurring north of the border with the top three players entering the final round having committed to play at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 23-26.
Rory McIlroy, the defending champion since 2019 because the Canadian Open wasn’t played for two years due to COVID-19, built a three-stroke lead with six holes to go at St. George’s Golf & Country Club in Toronto. But while Justin Rose was nearly breaking 60 well ahead of the leaders, several errant drives and missed short putts led to bogeys and enabled fast-closing Justin Thomas to tie for the lead with two holes left.
But a two-shot swing at the par-4 17th hole put McIlroy, eighth in the Official World Golf Rankings, back in solid position for his 33rd victory worldwide, including 21 on the PGA Tour. A drive into heavy rough led to Thomas’ first bogey in 34 holes, while McIlroy hit a 127-yard approach from light rough to 3 feet to set up his ninth birdie, including a 50-foot chip-in for 2 at No. 6.
The popular 33-year-old Irishman put an exclamation point to the title with a 5-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole for an 8-under-par 62, a 72-hole total of 19-under 261 and a two-stroke victory over 18th ranked Tony Finau, another committed to the Travelers Championship who holed a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 18 for 64.
Another errant drive led to a closing bogey for Thomas, who won the PGA Championship in an aggregate three-hole playoff with Will Zalatoris last month. Thomas, ranked sixth in the world, shot 64 for 265, one better than Rose (60) and Sam Burns (65), who is also scheduled to be at TPC River Highlands, along with Zalatoris.
In his initial post-victory comments on CBS-TV, McIlroy, the player director of the PGA Tour policy board, fired a major zinger at World Golf Hall of Famer and 1995 Greater Hartford Open champion Greg Norman, the CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf, a rival league backed by Saudi Arabia that played its first event last week outside of London. Norman said in a story in the Washington Post that McIlroy had been “brainwashed” by the PGA Tour.
“Three of the best players in the world going at it down the stretch, trying to win in front of those (record) crowds and that atmosphere, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said McIlroy, who repeated 1,100 days after win No. 1. “It was incredible. Playing with Tony and JT, and all of us playing the way we did, I think the worst round was 6 under, this is a day I will always remember. My 21st PGA Tour win, one more than someone else (Norman), that gave me a little extra incentive, and I’m happy to get it done.”
McIIroy also has twice as many major championship titles (four) as “someone else” and the Canadian Open was the PGA Tour’s resounding response to the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational Series that featured a 54-hole, no-cut, shotgun tournament won by Charl Schwartzel on Saturday. As McIlroy walked off the 18th green, he was congratulated by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who earlier in the week had decreed that any PGA Tour player who defected to LIV Golf was suspended for an unspecified time. The group also included former Travelers Championship winners Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Lee Westwood, Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen and Ian Poulter.
During the CBS telecast on Sunday, Monahan didn’t backtrack on his decision to continue to deny a release to a player to compete in a conflicting tournament opposite a domestic PGA Tour event.
“It’s been an unfortunate week that was created by some unfortunate decisions, those decisions being players choosing to violate our tournament regulations,” Monahan said. “It’s my job to protect, defend and celebrate our loyal PGA Tour members, our partners and our fans, and that’s exactly what I did. And I don’t think it was a surprise to anybody. Given how clear I had been about how we were going to handle this situation.
“We made a decision last week to suspend those players, and they’re no longer eligible for tournament play. And that at this point is all we’re prepared to talk to. We’ll see how things continue to develop as we go down the road.”
McIlroy continued to be a strong proponent of the PGA Tour.
“This feels really good with all the things that were going on in the world of golf this week,” said McIlroy, who was in the final group with Thomas and Finau. “It means an awful lot because I feel it’s getting tougher and tougher to win on the PGA Tour. Just look at the two guys that I played with today. I went out with a lead and had to shoot 8-under-par 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 is something to feel really good about.
“So I’m super happy to get that 21st win, to defend (for the first time), even though it doesn’t feel like a defense because it’s been so long. And then just to play in a final group like that with that atmosphere all day. The fans were just absolutely unbelievable, so good and so cool to play in an atmosphere like that. Boisterous, loud, but respectful. It was really, really cool to be a part of and just really happy to get the win and obviously sets me up well going into next week in Boston.”
The 18th-ranked Finau said he was in good form entering the tournament and played really well all week before the thousands of fans, many of whom surrounded the 18th green as the final threesome finished.
“I knew I was going to have a chance to win if I just kind of stuck to my stuff, and I did,” Finau said. “We were within one going to the last couple of holes, so I knew I had an opportunity in front of me. But Rory played great. He closed it out, and hats off to him. That’s fantastic on the weekend. I played great, he just played a couple shots better.”
Then it was on to the U.S. Open.
“This was big, and I’m looking forward to next week,” Finau said. “Never seen Brookline, but any time you’re coming off a good solid performance no matter what you place always gives you confidence. So this has definitely given me confidence. My game is sharp, and I’m looking forward to seeing the golf course and getting after it.”
Rose started his run at history with a 137-yard wedge shot on the par-4 first hole for his first of three eagles. He added seven birdies in coming within a whisker of becoming the 13th player to break 60 on the PGA Tour. The Englishman hit a wedge approach to 2 feet to set up a birdie at the 17th hole to get to 11 under for the day but narrowly missed an 18-foot par putt at No. 18 to settle with matching his career low of 10-under 60 and leap from a tie for 19th to a tie for fourth.
“It was a fun day, but I’m totally disappointed because you know what’s at stake, for sure,” said Rose, who also made eagle putts of 30 and 8 feet on the 11th and 15th hole. “You’re really just playing the last hole – I never shot 59 before – so I would have been a lovely footnote on the week.”
Rose, the 2018 FedExCup champion and 2019 Olympic gold medalist in Japan, was trying to become the first player to break 60 on the PGA Tour since No. 1 Scottie Scheffler in the second round of The Northern Trust in 2020, when he shot 12-under 59 at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass. The all-time PGA Tour record is the 12-under 58 that Jim Furyk shot in the final round of the 2016 Travelers Championship, which came three years after he carded 59 in the BMW Championship
The 122nd U.S. Open begins Thursday June 16 – Sunday June 19 at The Country Club in Brookline.