Rory McIlroy wins golf's largest first prize
Ulsterman holds off Anthony Kim for £1.25m prize and his first victory since the US Open
Rory McIlroy seems determined to let his golf do the talking after his recent split with his manager and it is fair to say that yesterday in China it screamed in the richest possible terms. The Northern Irishman collected the game's biggest first prize by surviving a wobble and then a play-off to win the Shanghai Masters.
No doubt the £1.25m does mean a lot to McIlroy (and indeed, to his new agency, Horizon, which will reap a fat percentage of the prize in its first week of overseeing the sport's hottest young property). But what will certainly mean more is the fact that, almost five months on, he has at last followed up his record-breaking US Open triumph.
"I've been close in two or three tournaments and had two thirds and two seconds, but was finally able to get myself over the line again today," said the 22-year-old. "This was the third play-off of my career, and I was able to win one, so at least my record in these events is getting better. This is the fourth win of my career, the second of my year and I feel like I could have won more." The Shanghai Masters is an unofficial event and therefore offered no ranking points or Order of Merit and Ryder Cup points. Yet there were 10 Major winners in the field, as well as nine other members of the world's top 30, including the world No 2 Lee Westwood.
However, sweet as it was to beat Westwood, his former ISM stablemate who accused him of making a "bizarre decision" in leaving Chubby Chandler, the manner of his victory is more relevant going forward. It evoked consternation and admiration in equal measure.
As McIlroy blew a three-shot overnight lead with visits to water and bunkers and missed tiddlers, and as Anthony Kim capitalised on these mistakes to take a one-shot lead after the 11th, it was impossible not to think back to the Ulsterman's experience at the Masters in April, or indeed, to his last tournament where he lost a three-shot lead.
No, there wasn't anything resembling the pressure of Augusta, but as in Georgia there had been three previous days of virtually mistake-free golf at the Lake Malaren course. Then McIlroy folded, this time he dug deep birdieing the 15th to join the American on 18-under and, after missing an eight-footer on the 18th to win in regulation, he held his nerve tightest as Kim missed a three-footer for par on the first play-off hole. The difference in prize money was £800,000.
"The thing that will help me win more is putting myself in these positions to win," said McIlroy, who finished with a level-par 72. "Even if it's scrappy golf where you grind it out, you're going to win a lot more tournaments by doing that."
Behind there was a gaping five strokes back to the Korean Noh Seung-yul and the American Hunter Mahan, while Westwood missed the opportunity of a podium-placed finish by bogeying the last two holes after he had holed-in-one at the 12th. McIlroy remains in Shanghai for the more prestigious HSBC WGC Champions. He will be joined today, by his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1 women's tennis player.
"I'm delighted – it gives me great confidence going into the WGC event," said McIlroy. "I want to try to chase Luke [Donald] in the European Tour's Race to Dubai." Donald is more than £1m clear of McIlroy in the money list, but won't be challenging in the Shanghai. Donald will remain at home in the US as his wife gives birth to their second daughter.
A resurgent Sergio Garcia will be there, however, after he earned the final qualifying berth with victory at yesterday's Andalucia Masters. After an 11-shot win in Valencia last week, this represents a stunning return to form. The first back-to-back wins of his career has hurtled him back into the world's top 20. Courtesy of an up and down from the rough on the last, he held off his countryman Miguel Angel Jimenez by one shot on the revered Valderrama layout, for his 21st professional victory.
His latest success was followed by a revelation that he feared he would never come back from a slump which saw him plummet from world No 2 to outside the top 75 – and quit the game for a while last season.
"I did doubt whether I would ever get my game back, as Luke Donald will tell you from a tough conversation I had with him at last year's Madrid Masters," said Garcia, who is now top of the Ryder Cup standings. "But the last two weeks have been so positive. The Ryder Cup has always been so very special to me so I'm going to keep fighting to make sure I qualify."