Rory McIlroy was installed as betting favourite for The Masters the moment he tapped in for par on the final hole after a dramatic final round to win the richest tournament in golf, The Players Championship.
Earning a one-shot win at TPC Sawgrass from 48-year-old Jim Furyk, McIlroy usurped World No.1 Dustin Johnson as the favourite with Australian bookmakers to win Augusta National's green jacket in April.
With a chance to complete golf's career grand slam at the Masters, four-time major winner McIlroy knows the hype will be furious during the next three weeks.
Having heard negative comments about finishing in the top six in his past five PGA Tour events without winning, McIlroy says he is prepared for the “noise”.
“I feel like I've managed the first six tournaments of the year very well, even with some noise around me, whether it is, ‘He can't close, he can’t play on Sundays,’ blah, blah,” McIlroy said.
“But if I go to Augusta with a similar golf game and the attitude I've shown this year, I'll have a great chance.”
McIlroy had played in three Sunday final groups this year without securing a PGA Tour victory.
RIGHT: Jim Furyk wound back the clock to take second place on his own at TPC Sawgrass, the American one shot back of McIlroy. PHOTO: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images.
Although he wasn't in Sunday's final pair at the US$12.5m (AU$17.6m) Players, McIlroy showed enormous grit to bounce back from an early double-bogey and card two-under-par 70 that gave him a 16-under total.
McIlroy made the turn in one-over and traded the lead several times before putting the foot down with birdies at the par-5 11th and driveable par-4 12th.
He then responded to a bogey at the 14th with a pair of birdies at 15 and 16.
With Furyk (67) in the clubhouse at 15 under, McIlroy needed a par on 18.
He smashed a drive down the middle of the fairway, hit his approach to 15 feet and two-putted for a US$2.25m (AU$3.18m) pay day.
With his 15th PGA Tour victory, World No.4 McIlroy believes he has entered the “second phase” of his stellar career.
The supremely talented and long-hitting 29-year-old said he has never been more consistent and that has only come with balance in his life.
“I (debuted at Sawgrass) as a 19-year-old in 2009, missing the cut, getting kicked out of bars in Jacksonville Beach for being under age, so I've come a long way in those 10 years,” McIlroy said.
“I’ve had a focus over the last six months on my attitude and not letting golf define who I am as a person.
“I used to let what I shot (on a course) influence my mood, but who I am as a person isn't who I am as a golfer.”
England's Eddie Pepperell (66) and Jhonattan Vegas (66) shared third at 14 under, while Queensland's Jason Day (72) – McIlroy's Sunday playing partner – was tied eighth at 12 under.
A shot back of Day was countryman Adam Scott, with the 2004 Players winner posting a final-round 70 to share 12th at 11 under.
Cameron Smith rounded out the Australian contingent and the World No.24 signed for a 71 to finish golf's unofficial fifth major with a two-under total.
Tiger Woods signed off with a 69 to share 30th at six under.
-Evin Priest, Australian Associated Press