It's no surprise that at the end of this latest PGA Tour season it was Rory McIlroy ultimately hosting the FedEx Cup, considering the statistically dominant campaign the Northern Irishman put together.
Though his three-win season might not appear at the top of his career highlights - the major championship triumphs in 2012 and 2014 may never be matched - it nevertheless culminated in one of the best statical campaigns of his heralded career.
After lifting the FedEx Cup for the third time, the first player in Tour history to do so, McIlroy capped off a season that saw him earn his fourth scoring average title, at 68.67, the only player on the PGA Tour to finish with a sub-69 average (the overall average for the 2021-22 season was 71.092).
Only Vijay Singh (2003) and Tiger Woods (eight different times) have matched McIlroy with a season-long average below 68.7.
McIlroy's six-shot comeback over Scottie Scheffler at the Tour Championship also cemented the 33-year-old’s fourth season of at least three wins, as he also jumpstarted his campaign with a victory at the CJ Cup before claiming the RBC Canadian Open midway through the year.
"I'm back to playing the golf that I'm used to playing, and the golf that I know that I can play," McIlroy said prior to the FedEx St. Jude Championship. "COVID was a weird time for everyone, and then coming out of it and going into the 2021 season, with my swing where it was, I was trying to change a couple of things and was going down a path I realised wasn't the path for me. [I'm] coming back out of that and now getting back to playing the golf I know I can play."
The late-season rise was in no doubt due to McIlroy's impressive resurgence across several aspects of his game. After ending The Masters ranked next-to-last among 209 TOUR players in average proximity from 50 to 125 yards (24 feet, one inch), McIlroy went on a tear that saw him close out the season with an average of 14 feet, one inch, best among all players with more than 30 attempts in that span.
But that wasn’t the only area where he’s upped his play. McIlroy ranked No. 131 in scrambling percentage last season, only to finish 30th this year, while also improving more than 50 spots in Strokes Gained: Around the Green (63rd in 2020-21 to 12th this season). Perhaps most importantly, the 22-time PGA Tour winner was 16th for Strokes Gained: Putting per round, after he finished 66th in 2021 and 122nd in 2019-20.
McIlroy ended the season ranked inside the top-50 in all four primary Strokes Gained categories (off-the-tee, approach the green, around the green and putting), only the second time he's done that, joining the 2018-19 season. That season he also won the TOUR Championship and RBC Canadian Open, along with The Players Championship.
"This year feels very similar to the way I played in 2019," he said. "It's a carbon copy in terms of the consistency and the numbers and the strokes gained numbers, but my finishes in the majors have been better and that's been – that's been a real positive looking ahead into next year and the future."
Before McIlroy hoisted the PGA Tour's ultimate prize, all eyes were on Patrick Cantlay for a potential repeat.
Last season's FedEx Cup champion was primed to go back-to-back after he became the first player to successfully defend a Playoffs event since their 2007 inception. At the BMW Championship, the 30-year-old birdied the 17th at Wilmington Country Club to hold off Scott Stallings in a one-shot victory, his second win at the event in as many years.
A year ago, Cantlay survived in a six-hole playoff at Maryland's Caves Valley Golf Club to win the BMW Championship, before sealing the FedEx Cup with a one-shot win over Jon Rahm.
"I think every time I've tried to defend, I don't think I've been able to do it, but it's something that you definitely circle on your calendar as something you want to do," Cantlay said. "These golf courses reminded me a lot of each other, and I was glad not to go six holes in a playoff."
Much like a season ago, it was largely the putter that lifted Cantlay to a post-season victory. Over the last two FedEx Cup Playoffs, Cantlay is +18.39 in total Strokes Gained: Putting, the most of any player.
The BMW Championship was a microcosm of that, as Cantlay was ranked 49th of 67 players in the third round, losing 1.493 strokes to the field. But after a late-night putting session, the Californian ranked 10th in Sunday’s final round, gaining 1.628 strokes on the field. He was a perfect 10-for-10 on Sunday putting inside 3 feet, after missing one in 13 attempts the day before. He was 16-for-17 from inside 10 feet on Sunday and just 15 for 20 on Saturday.
ZALATORIS BREAKS THROUGH
Fans have been anxiously awaiting Will Zalatoris’s first trip to the PGA Tour winner's circle, after heart-aching playoff losses this year at the Farmers Insurance Open and PGA Championship.
Viewers finally got their wish in the first leg of the FedExCup Playoffs, as the young 26-year-old poured in a clutch par at the last to force extra holes with Sepp Straka. He ultimately outlasted the Austrian on the third playoff hole.
"It's kind of hard to say 'about time' when it's your second year on Tour, but about time," Zalatoris joked. "Obviously this was a grind considering the start that I had. I love this golf course, I played well here last year. Considering all the close finishes that I've had this year, to finally pull it off, it means a lot."
The budding superstar led the field in both Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green (+1.93) and Tee-to-Green (+2.35), becoming just the second player to lead both at the FedEx St. Jude Championship (Dustin Johnson, 2020).
All the more impressive was that he finished the first round at one over, the highest score to par after the opening round by a winner at the FedEx St Jude Championship. The previous worst opening round by a winner? Vijay Singh, who was one under after 18 holes in 2008.
Zalatoris was tied for 86th after the first round, marking the lowest position by a winner after the opening round of the playoffs (McIlroy previously held the honour, sitting at T67 after the opening round of the 2016 Dell Technologies Championship).