It was hardly the start Rory McIlroy had envisioned.

His opening drive on Thursday at the Tour Championship careened over the boundary fence and out of bounds, eventually leading to a triple bogey. Making matters worse, a bogey followed at the second, and suddenly, McIlroy was a distant 10 strokes behind the FedEx Cup leader, Scottie Scheffler.

The gritty Northern Irishman must be a glass-half-full kind of guy, though, and McIlroy wasn't about to let the stumble dictate the direction he would take in the Playoff finale at historic East Lake Golf Club.

Indeed, he fought back on Thursday, shooting a back-nine 31 and finishing with a 67 to stay in the mix and by Sunday McIlroy had worked his way into the final group with Scheffler, albeit six shots in arrears.

The battle between the world number one and the third-ranked McIlroy for the PGA Tour's biggest prize on a sun-drenched afternoon didn’t disappoint, either. It was, as McIlroy would later say, a "spectacle", as entertaining a match as they come.

As McIlroy doggedly pushed forward on Sunday, Scheffler, a four-time winner this season, began to flounder. McIlroy tied for the lead with an improbable 31-footer at the 15th hole and took sole possession at the next when the Texan couldn't get up-and-down from a greenside bunker.

Two scrambling pars later and McIlroy became the first three-time winner of the FedEx Cup, earning $18million in the process. He closed with a 66 and finished at 21-under while Scheffler shot 73, making just one birdie all day, and tied for second with Sungjae Im.

McIlroy was nothing if not magnanimous in victory. He hugged Scheffler's parents and wife, who were standing near the scoring area, telling them their man deserved the title, too. Then he said as much on television as he was interviewed by NBC's Mike Tirico.

"What a week, what a day," McIlroy said as he gripped the gleaming silver Tiffany trophy tightly. "I feel like Scottie deserves at least half of this today. He has had an unbelievable season. I feel sort of bad that I pipped him to the post, but he's a hell of a competitor. He's an even better guy.

"It was an honor and a privilege to battle with him today, and I'm sure we'll have many more. I told him we're 1-1 in Georgia today: He got The Masters; I got this."

The dichotomy of the way he started the tournament and the way he finished was not lost on McIlroy, either. He couldn't help but remember the resiliency shown just four weeks earlier when Tom Kim started the Wyndham Championship with a quadruple bogey to fall 13 shots off the pace before going on to win.

"I guess it just shows you anything's possible, even when you're a few behind or a few in front in the tournament," McIlroy said. "Anything can happen. I'm going to remember this week mostly for that. Your mind can go one of two ways when you start like that, and automatically I thought about Tom Kim at Greensboro.

"I could have easily thought the other way and thought, I've got no chance now; what am I doing here? But I just sort of, I guess, proved that I was in a really good mindset for the week, and I didn't let it get to me too much and just stuck my head down and got to work."

The 2021-22 season was another standout one for McIlroy, whose third victory of the year brings his career total on Tour to 22. He's still looking for his fifth major championship – and first since 2014 – but the consistency of four top 10s, including second at The Masters and third at The Open Championship, has to be heartening.

McIlroy likened this season to his 2019 campaign, when he won The Players Championship and RBC Canadian Open before beating Brooks Koepka, then the top-ranked player in the world, at East Lake. And not even McIlroy's good friend Tiger Woods has won three FedEx Cup crowns.

"I played great golf. I had some good wins but didn't pick off a major, but I felt like Harry [Diamond, his caddie] said it to me on the 18th green today. He goes, all the good golf you played this year, you deserve this," McIlroy explained.

"Look, it's really cool to do something in golf that no one has ever done before. Obviously, the history of the FedEx Cup isn't as long as the history of some other tournaments, but to be walking out of here three times a champion, it's very, very satisfying and something that I'm incredibly proud of."

In some ways, and with all due respect to Scheffler, McIlroy was the perfect winner at East Lake. He and Woods were at the heart of a players-only meeting at the BMW Championship that was the catalyst for some of the sweeping changes that PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan announced in Atlanta a day before the Playoff finale began.

Those changes include additional elevated events for 2023 that will feature purses of at least $20m and are designed to bring the game’s top players together 20 times a year. McIlroy is a member of the PGA Tour Policy Board and has emerged as its most ardent spokesman.

"Look, it's been a tumultuous time for the world of men's professional golf in particular,” he said. "I've been in the thick of things. I guess every chance I get, I'm trying to defend what I feel is the best place to play elite professional golf in the world.

"It's in some ways fitting that I was able to get this done today to sort of round off a year that has been very, very challenging and different."

As eye-popping as the money on offer at the Tour Championship was, as well as what will be offered at the elevated events in the future is, though, McIlroy will be the first to say it’s the competition that fuels him. Not dollar signs.

"There's a lot of cool things that come along with winning the FedEx Cup," McIlroy said. "The trophy, I have three sterling silver Calamity Jane replicas in my house, which is really cool. To think about here at East Lake and Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur player to ever play the game, the sort of history and traditions of the game of golf. He sort of exemplified all that.

"Look, the money is the money. It's great, and we are professional golfers, we play golf for a living. That is a part of it. But I think at this point in my career, the winning and the journey and the emotions and who I do it with mean more than the check."