McIlroy has finished in the top 10 in the Masters in each of the last five years, although 2018's tie for fifth was part of a string of nine tournaments without a win when playing in the last group in the final round.
"There's a little disappointment, thinking maybe I played well enough to win", said the American. "It's just another step in the journey. I knew the (leading) guys weren't going to get away from us".
While they fretted over his inability to convert that string of promising positions, they questioned everything from the Northern Irishman's mental state, ability to putt, work ethic and choice of caddie.
McIlroy finished a shot ahead of Jim Furyk (-15) and two in front of Eddie Pepperell and Jhonattan Vegas.
Should Rory McIlroy dance to the tune of golf, his inconsistency would be worthy of ridicule. His victory caps a run of six consecutive PGA Tour events where his worst finish has been a share of sixth place. The last of those on the 16th, put him into the lead with two of the most diabolical holes left. Without trophies, frequent top finishes have a way of steering conversations toward, 'Why can't he close?' Even for four-time major champions.
"I've taken a lot from this".
McIlroy ended that discussion on Sunday.
McIlroy headed into the final round two under par and in contention for the title. "When you reflect on the week, you have to reflect on the 72 holes and not just the last two holes you played, and every time I reflected on the 72 I've played, I've been pretty happy". With water and certain death left, the bailout is the right trees, where there aren't many pars to be made. That week, he had a chance to win but was uncomfortable with the tee shot on 18, before committing completely to his trademark free-swinging, full release philosophy.
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Two putts later he had his first Players title. 'I really want to enjoy this.
"Didn't miss many shots out there", Rahm said. To try and keep those two things very separate is something I've worked hard on because who I am as a person isn't who I am as a golfer, and it took me a while to get to that point where I realised who those two people were.
They shared the lead at 12-under 132, three shots clear of anyone else. Fleetwood has failed to come through for the second week in a row after taking a four-shot co-lead into the weekend at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
On Sunday, he ended his year-long victory drought by finishing on top of a wildly fluctuating leaderboard on an exceptionally hard TPC Sawgrass course made tougher by cool, wet weather, to capture his 15th PGA Tour title and first in a year. Furyk, 48, who only got into the field last Sunday, fired a final-round 67 that included a kick-in birdie at the 18th.
Forever a prodigious talent, consistency had escaped McIlroy throughout his career.
While the change hasn't necessarily resulted in a flurry of wins, it has allowed McIlroy to become the most consistent golfer in the world. When it's working there are few better with the driver than McIlroy, who ranked third in strokes gained/off the tee and first in strokes gained/ tee to green for the week. "I think I'll have a great chance". "I think it's been having a focus over the last six or seven months on my attitude, especially my attitude to golf, and not letting golf define who I am as a person..."
Given the nature of this golf course - and a forecast for a different wind - the fun might just be starting.
No matter. He was in the lead, facing a Sunday pairing with Fleetwood as he goes for the most important win of his young career.