Rory McIlroy reaches top of the world after marching past Tiger's trap
The greatest doubted him and the other greatest pushed him. But Rory McIlroy became the world No 1 regardless what Jack said or Tiger did. If ever a coronation possessed validity, it was here at the Honda Classic in Florida yesterday.
It says so much about McIlroy's achievement that Woods shot a 62, the lowest final-round of his 16-year career – and it still wasn't enough. When Woods eagled the 18th with one of those classic red-shirted "Tiger moments" for which the game had for so long craved, Nicklaus, in the NBC booth, said: "I would prefer to be in Tiger's position now than Rory's."
In one aspect it made sense as McIlroy was two clear but the infamous "Bear Trap" finale loomed. But, as it proved, it wasn't to make any sense. The 22-year-old survived under the most intense pressure; indeed, he flourished making par saves on the 15th and 17th, before eventually tapping in for a 69 and a 12-under finish. The two-stroke win established him as the second-youngest ever to top the rankings.
"It's fantastic to be able to get the job done and become world No 1," he said, after this third win in his last nine events. "It was tough watching Tiger make the charge but my short-game has been sharp all week and definitely saved me a few times today."
Don't expect any of the queries which surfaced when Lee Westwood and Luke Donald scaled the summit. Woods was honest enough to state the reason why America will accept him as "the best" so readily. "It's pretty evident that of those three names, Rory has won a major," said Woods, boasting his best finish in an "official" event since the sex scandal broke more than two years ago. "But it's all about consistency. Rory's had one finish out of the top-10 in 10 or many starts. For him being No 1 is a testament to how consistent he has been."
It is such an impressive claim to superstardom, but does not begin to do this incredible finale justice. Outside of the majors and the Ryder Cup, this is surely as good as golf ever gets. The boy who would be king claimed the throne with not Woods but also his most obvious of European rivals threatening to yank away his red carpet. Westwood shot a 63 to raise the heat on McIlroy. "Yeah, he's got most of the shots," said Westwood with a smirk, content with coming fourth.
So England does not boast the world No 1 for the first time in more than a year. Nobody, however, would begrudge McIlroy, who has utterly captivated his sport. Imagine someone upstaging Woods shooting a round of eight-under and from hauling himself from nine shots behind to within sniffing distance of victory. Only Rory.
After Woods hit that remarkable 215-yard five-iron to within eight feet, and duly brought the house down, the frenzy instantly moved to Ulsterman. Was this the time to place the crown upon his head, or a question mark above it? Dressed all in white, McIlroy had cut a starling pose on the practice green as it was time to make his way to the first tee. A 90-minute weather suspension had delayed his starting time and with the temperature dropping as the winds rose this would represent the biggest Sunday of his career thus far, outside of the majors. He was given a warning what was coming when he walked up to the fan-lined tunnel up to the fourth tunnel, with Woods on the nearby ninth tee, and someone shouted, "Look out! He's behind you..." Quite.
Only a win would have seen him rise above Donald and, after Woods' two-eagled, six-birdied heroics, there was an overwhelming sense of tension in the air as he approached the "Bear Trap". McIlroy had coped commendable through the first 14 holes, the bogey on the 12th negated with his own eight-footer for a birdie on the 13th, seconds after Tiger's grandstand finish. His lead had been cut to one for an instant. But still, with the entire property shaking, the onus was on McIlroy to show his quality. Boy did he show it, as he has done the last six months.
As Woods alluded, McIlroy has played 11 tournaments and in this spell has recorded two wins, eight other top fives and an 11th-place finish. What happened at the Dubai World Championship where he dared not crack the top 10? McIllroy had dengue fever, that's what. Otherwise the hot flushes have been the preserve of the galleries and the temperature will only continue to rise as the first major beckons in four weeks' time, never mind next week's WGC event in Miami. McIlroy is the man, Donald will be looking to reclaim the mantle again and Westwood, with his putting coming together, feels his time might be nigh.
And Tiger? "It's just a matter of time before I put it together for a whole tournament," he said. Golf can hardly wait. Said Graeme McDowell: "This golf season's just got a lot more spicy."With so much added Tabasco.