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McIlroy’s magic saluted by Tiger and pal McDowell

By Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy was signing autographs by the third tee at Sawgrass yesterday morning when a little parcel tied up with ribbon was pushed into his hand.

“That's for you, Rory,” said a small girl sheepishly. “Happy birthday.”

“The first present?” a reporter enquired. “Nope,” McIlroy replied. “I got the first present on Sunday and it was the only one I wanted.”

Now 21, McIlroy was legally entitled to paint the town red last night. Yet it's a mark of his maturity and his determination to remain at a peak for this week's $9.5m Players Championship that he confined himself to a low-key celebration with a few friends on Tour.

“There'll be plenty of time for partying once I get home next week,” said McIlroy, whose victory at Quail Hollow is still the talk of the locker-room at Sawgrass. Tiger Woods readily conceded McIlroy is streets ahead of where he was at the same age, while Phil Mickelson, runner-up at Quail Hollow, placed Sunday's course-record 62 on a par with Tiger's apocryphal win at the 2000 US Open.

“Rory played an incredible round and, as we go back to Pebble Beach this summer, it reminds me of the best performance I've ever seen, which was Tiger in the US Open there in 2000,” said Mickelson. “That was the best golf I've ever seen.”

Mickelson will leapfrog Woods to the top of the world rankings for the first time if he wins on Sunday and Tiger finishes fifth. Yet, believe it or not, McIlroy has other ideas about that.

While Jim Furyk was blown away by the quality of McIlroy's golf on Sunday, the American found it “even more amazing that when I came out to hit a few balls Monday, Rory was on the range when I got there. I'm not sure what he was working on but I got a kick out of that”.

Once the formalities had been completed at Quail Hollow, McIlroy flew straight from Charlotte to Jacksonville on Sunday and had couple of quiet drinks with a member of his management team before turning in.

“I actually struggled to sleep on Sunday night and still feel as if I'm sort of floating a little bit,” McIlroy admitted yesterday. “I wish I'd a week off to allow it all sink in, though actually getting straight back into action is good.”

McIlroy played the back nine at Sawgrass with 2004 Players Championship champion Adam Scott on Monday and went out yesterday morning to complete the other half with the Aussie, Justin Rose and Matt Bettencourt.

Graeme McDowell, probably McIlroy's closest pal on Tour, was among those who toasted his coming of age last night.

“I spoke to Rory this morning and he's talking about winning more,” said McDowell, explaining he had “goosebumps” as he watched his friend coming down the stretch on TV last Sunday.

“I've always believed he was a superstar ready to happen. It was only a matter of time and on a world-class course against a world-class field last Sunday he took them apart. It doesn't surprise me — he's that good.

“Tiger Woods probably has never played nine holes like Rory did on Sunday. Tiger's unbelievable from the irons in, but Rory is so far ahead of him in the way he drives the ball, long very accurate and very aggressive.”

Woods doesn't argue. “I wasn't anywhere near ready to turn pro at age 18 as Rory did. I wasn't good enough,” conceded Tiger, who missed the cut last Friday after a shocking second-round 79. “As for his driving, I never hit the ball as far as Rory does,” Woods added. “He hits it past me. I shrimp it out there now.”

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