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Relaxed Rory McIlroy is all set for new Jordan Spieth battle

By Kevin Garside

What to give as a birthday gift to the golfer who has everything? The one thing of which they never tire - a trophy. Oh, and a day off.

Rory McIlroy celebrated his 26th birthday yesterday beside the WGC-Cadillac Match Play title, clinched with victory over Gary Woodland in San Francisco on Sunday, and promised himself a day at home before heading up the Florida coast to Jacksonville to contest the richest prize in golf, the Players Championship.

McIlroy's second world golf championship success, his first victory in America since lifting the PGA Championship last August, began a busy stretch during which he will compete in three more events this month, culminating at the tournament he is co-promoting, the Irish Open at Royal County Down.

Over five days in San Francisco, McIlroy ran through seven opponents, including three on the final day, to reassert his credentials as the game's pre-eminent force.

The win stretches the gap to Masters champion Jordan Spieth at the top of the world rankings to three points, and amps up their nascent rivalry beautifully ahead of Sawgrass this week.

"It's always important for me to get my first win Stateside during the year," McIlroy said. "I won in Dubai at the start of the year and had a couple of good finishes, but I never really felt like I got into contention for the last few events.

"Even though I felt like I played okay at Doral, Bay Hill and Augusta, I never really had a chance to win a tournament. So it's really satisfying to get that first win here."

As Woodland acknowledged, McIlroy is a competitive beast. The pair are as friendly as Tour golfers can be but that offered Woodland nil protection on the back nine after McIlroy had seen his lead trimmed from four holes to two playing the 13th.

"Obviously, he's really, really good, the No 1 in the world. But I don't know if there's a nicer guy out here. I really like Rory. We had a good time. We're good friends," said Woodland.

"We talked all through the match. But when I missed the putt on 13, he definitely flipped another switch.

"He didn't miss a shot coming in after that. He's a great competitor."

After witnessing 21-year-old Spieth's towering achievement at Augusta, winning from wire to wire, McIlroy was responding in kind, laying down his own substantial marker as the season builds towards the second Major of the year, the US Open at Chambers Bay next month.

"I think everyone on Tour was inspired seeing Jordan do what he did at Augusta," McIlroy said. "I definitely wanted to come out and play well and increase my lead in the world rankings, which I've done, and keep it going."

The result is a second piece of Wedgwood to sit alongside his first WGC trophy won during that marvellous stretch last year when he claimed the Open, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in successive appearances.

"The World Golf Championships are very important to us as players," McIlroy said.

"These Wedgwood trophies are nice to look at in your trophy cabinet. It will be going in there right next to the one I won at Bridgestone last year."

Sheffield's Danny Willett, who lost to Woodland in the semi-final, shot to a career-high 39 in the world rankings after beating Jim Furyk in the play-off for third place in San Francisco.

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