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Rory McIlroy is looming in Brooks Koepka's rearview mirror after WGC success in Shanghai

 

Pals act: Rory McIlroy and caddy Harry Diamond celebrate the moment of victory in China
Pals act: Rory McIlroy and caddy Harry Diamond celebrate the moment of victory in China
Victory in sight: Rory McIlroy on his way to winning the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai after a play-off

By Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy is looming large in Brooks Koepka's rearview mirror after he edged out Xander Schauffele in Shanghai to win the WGC-HSBC Champions and his fourth title of 2019.

While the Co Down man cannot mathematically overtake Koepka and regain the World No.1 ranking this year, his 18th PGA Tour win (and 14th European Tour success) will have caught the American's attention.

"I'm not looking at anybody behind me," Koepka said of his rivalry with McIlroy just two weeks ago. "I'm No.1 in the world. I've got open road in front of me and I'm not looking in the rearview mirror, so I don't see it as a rivalry."

Koepka will know that objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear and McIlroy is now just 1.08 points behind him having trailed by almost four points back in August.

But for McIlroy's disappointments in the Majors over the past five years - he's had 10 top-10s but zero wins in his last 19 Major starts compared to four wins from 18 starts for Koepka over the same period - there would be no debate over which of the two is the game's best player.

Major disappointments aside, it's been one of the most memorable seasons of McIlroy's career and it may prove the perfect springboard for another assault on golf's summit in 2020.

Having mixed 14 top-10 finishes with victories in The Players Championship, the Canadian Open and the Tour Championship with another win in Shanghai, McIlroy believes he's a more consistent threat these days.

"I think maybe more so than say when I first came out on Tour, I try 100 per cent over every shot," he said after two-putting for birdie on the first play-off hole to defeat defending Schauffele, who birdied the 72nd hole for a 66 to McIlroy's 68 to force the head-to-head on 19-under par.

"I think because I realise I don't have as much time left as I used to when I was 20. Even if I'm having a bad day, I'm trying over every single shot.

"My concentration is better and my mental capacity on the golf course is much better than it ever has been, and I think that's a big key as to why I'm able to play consistently week in, week out."

Just as Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Price and Tiger Woods were the most dominant players of the '70s, '80s, '90s and Noughties, nobody has been more successful over the past 10 years than McIlroy, who has now won 25 times worldwide since 2009.

He must wait another five months before he gets another chance to complete the career Grand Slam and join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods on golf's Mount Rushmore at The Masters at Augusta next April.

But becoming the first European to win three World Golf Championships, while taking his career earnings to £38m, will go some way to salving the wounds left by his failure to add to his Major tally since 2014 with The Open at Royal Portrush a massive low point.

One behind at halfway in Shanghai after opening with a brace of 67s, he showed his new-found consistency by carding bogey-free rounds of 67 and 68 at the weekend and then won just his second play-off from eight attempts to match countryman Darren Clarke's haul of 14 European Tour wins.

As a result, he jumped from 33rd to fifth in the Race to Dubai, 1,477 points behind Austria's Bernd Wiesberger, who will have chances to stretch his lead in the Turkish Airlines Open and the Nedbank Golf Challenge over the next fortnight.

"I just wanted to play well until the end of the year to give myself a great platform going into 2020," McIlroy said of his performances since out-gunning Koepka to win the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup five weeks ago.

"Regardless of what happens in Dubai, I've already done that. I have a lot of World Ranking points here, FedEx Cup points, and it's nice to be No.1 in that very early on in the season and be up there from the start."

Wiesberger tied for 49th at Sheshan International on one over par but extended his Race to Dubai lead over Jon Rahm to 342.2 points.

Shane Lowry remains third having only marginally reduced the gap with Wiesberger from 662.8 points to 651.1 points after he followed three 72s with a one-under 71 to finish tied 43rd on one under par.

Wiesberger and Lowry, meanwhile, will go head-to-head in the Turkish Airlines Open this week and attempt to move further clear of the lurking McIlroy with Ryder Cup skipper Padraig Harrington also making the trip after receiving a sponsor's invitation to play at the The Montgomerie Maxx Royal.

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