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Rory is keen to highlight the positives after failure to find spark

 

By Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy's latest final round reverse was a timely reminder of the X-factor that helped Padraig Harrington slay the demons that threatened to haunt him forever - implacable will.

The Holywood man failed to spark in the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and came away empty-handed from the final group for the seventh time in a row in the space of 12 months.

With his new putter ice-cold all day - the longest putt he made in a 33-putt round was a four-and-a-half-footer for par at the 11th - the World No.8 signed for a pedestrian one-under-par 72 that left him eight strokes behind golf's newest X-Man superhero, Xander Schauffele.

Refusing to beat himself up, the Ulsterman said: "My attitude was much better, I didn't press at all. I was very patient, it's just something I'm going to have to persist with, just keep putting myself in these positions.

"And, honestly, I don't think anyone could have beaten Xander today. I would have had to have gone out there and shot nine-under-par.

"Obviously I could have shot a better score, but I did what I wanted to do. I gave myself plenty of chances, I hit most of the fairways, I hit most of the greens, I just couldn't get the ball to drop."

While McIlroy would have needed a 64 to win as Schauffele carded a course record-equalling 62 to clinch his fourth come-from-behind PGA Tour win in 18 months, he quickly took a leaf out of the book of the mental self-defence of Ryder Cup captain-elect Harrington.

After the 24th of the 29 second-place finishes he recorded before winning the first of his three Majors in 2007, Harrington said: "So long as I am learning, I am okay. If you put your neck on the block often you will suffer failure often."

McIlroy spoke on the eve of the final round in Hawaii of his determination not to fall into the same trap that saw him come up empty-handed from six final group appearances in 2018.

But while he avoided the temptation to press "too early", he lacked the crucial cutting edge on the greens he showed in winning at Bay Hill last year and ended up tied for fourth.

While he cut Gary Woodland's three-shot overnight lead to two strokes after three holes, that was as close as he got after another lacklustre day with the blade.

"Anything that was right-to-left I missed on the high side and anything left-to-right I missed on the low side," said McIlroy, who was 24th in the 33-man field for strokes gained putting on the final day.

"Just one of those days where it just didn't happen."

Instead, it was Schauffele who caught fire, roaring through with an otherworldly final round performance to win from behind for the fourth time in 18 months and jump from 10th to sixth in the world rankings.

While it's not quite a case of back to the drawing board for the Northern Ireland man, he admitted he needs time off to "reflect on what was good and what maybe wasn't so good", adding he'd definitely play again before the Genesis Open at Riviera from February 14-17 but had yet to decide where.

Accentuating the positives, especially his repertoire of feel shots, he said: "I think this week I showed a little more versatility in my game.

"I was hitting different shots, left to right, right to left, high to low. Some things I wasn't maybe quite as comfortable doing last year. But, overall, it's been a positive week even though I wish I would have played a little better."

McIlroy reiterated his focus on the Majors, arguing that "there's four weeks of the year you really want to play well".

But there's nothing like winning for building confidence heading into The Masters and if this week proved anything it's that his list of rivals is growing rather than shrinking.

Rather than wilting after an opening bogey, Schauffele (25), who was five behind starting out, birdied the third, fifth, sixth and seventh, pitched in from 18 yards for an eagle at the par-five ninth to go out in 31 and matched that score on the back nine.

After holing a wedge from 107 yards for another eagle at the 12th to close within one of Woodland, the Californian finished with four birdies in his last five holes to win by a shot on 23-under-par as Woodland failed to birdie the last.

Schauffele won the Greenbrier Classic and the Tour Championship to lock up the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year award in 2017, finished second in The Open last year and won the WGC-HSBC Champions after a play-off with Tony Finau last October.

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