SAN ANTONIO - Martin Laird has spent the last six months on the driving range looking for answers to his struggling game.
The Scottish golfer finally found what he was looking for, and then some on Sunday - winning the Texas Open with a final-round 9-under par 63 to overcome a resurgent Rory McIlroy and some of the world's best along the way.
Laird, who entered the week 161st on the money list, tied the course record with his bogey-free effort. He punctuated the overall 14-under effort with birdies on the final three holes, earning a trip to next week's Masters and plenty of confidence in a recent swing change along the way.
"I came in here quietly confident, even though my record this year has been poor to say the least," Laird said. "But golf's a funny game; doesn't matter what you did two weeks ago. It turns around pretty quickly."
The win was Laird's third on the PGA Tour, his first since the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2011.
He entered the week having missed four of eight cuts this year following a swing change last September, including a missed cut at last week's Houston Open. However, he shot a second-round 65 in that event after a four-hour range session - providing plenty of confidence that his game was finally starting to come together.
It did just that Sunday, and how.
Laird began the day four shots behind leader Billy Horschel, but he birdied five of his first eight holes to immediately jump into contention. His 7-foot birdie putt on No. 8 - one of only 22 putts in the round - put him into a tie with Horschel at 10 under.
He then held off a hard-charging McIlroy over the last few holes, including a stunning up-and-down for birdie out of the fairway bunker and off the fringe on No. 17. He capped the win with a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th.
McIlroy, the world's No. 2, began the day at 6 under before posting a 66 to finish two shots back and finish second - his best finish of the year.
Horschel shot a 1-under 71 to finish in a tie for third with Jim Furyk and Charley Hoffman.
Furyk eagled the par-5 18th from 104 yards out to jump into third. The former U.S. Open winner had only four holes of practice on the Greg Norman-designed Course at TPC on Wednesday before rain washed him out, but he posted a final-round 69 to close out a steady week.
Horschel, who led after the second and third rounds, was unable to match the low rounds of his competitors and finished with a 1-under 71. The Florida native, who was second at last week's Houston Open and was borderline defiant earlier in the week about his chances of competing against former major winners, was seeking his first PGA Tour win.
"Everyone's going to have butterflies," Horschel said. "I don't care if it's Tiger Woods or Joe Schmo at the golf course; you're going to have butterflies, and you have to learn how to deal with it."
McIlroy, who only entered the tournament late last week, closed to within a shot of Laird when he sank a 13-foot birdie putt on the 204-yard par-3 16th to reach 11 under.
The former world No. 1 had struggled with his consistency for much of the year entering the week, but he made seven birdies on Sunday. It was exactly the kind of competitive final round McIlroy envisioned when he signed up in advance of next week's first major of the year.
He continued to struggle off the tee, hitting just seven of 14 fairways for the third time this week Sunday. However, he needed only 26 putts - by far his best effort on the greens for the week.
"I feel like my game's in really good shape going into next week," McIlroy said. "A round like that gives me a nice bit of confidence.
"I thought if I got to 12 under today that might have been good enough, but Martin just played too good and holed so many putts. It was hard to keep up."
While McIlroy's primary focus throughout the week was on preparing for Augusta National, Laird couldn't have imagined when the week began that he would join the former world No. 1 next week.
Laird earned this third straight trip to the Masters with his win, which he closed out with three straight birdies. That included the surprising up-and-down on No. 17 and finishing with a 15-foot putt for birdie on 18 - clinching a share of the course record, which was set in last year's opening round by Matt Every.
He became the first PGA Tour player to earn a trip to the Masters in the last week before the tournament since Johnson Wagner won the Houston Open in 2008.
Laird played at Augusta National the last two years following his win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2011, finishing 20th two years ago and 57th last year.
Well-known name or not, Laird overcame some of the world's best on Sunday.
"I know how good Rory is, but it doesn't matter if it's Rory or Jim or Billy, if someone's behind me making birdies like they were, I know I've got to keep making birdies," Laird said. "That was a pretty strong leaderboard at the top there."
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