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Rory McIlroy leapfrogs Tiger Woods in world rankings

By Karl MacGinty

Take a four stroke lead into Sunday at The Masters and there are only two possible outcomes ... the Green Jacket or Sackcloth and Ashes.

Unless your name is Rory McIlroy!

The most remarkable feature of McIlroy's final day collapse at Augusta National is the way he simply has taken it in his stride.

McIlroy - who yesterday leapfrogged his boyhood idol Tiger Woods in the world rankings - celebrates his 22nd birthday tomorrow at Quail Hollow.

That's where McIlroy, now sixth in the world as opposed to the fading Tiger's seventh place, steps back into the PGA Tour spotlight this week as defending champion at The Wells Fargo Championship.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a pressure situation for any player.

But McIlroy has proved in the three weeks since Augusta that he's not 'any player'.

From the moment he walked off the green after that calamitous final round 80, he has astonished people with his acceptance.

Whether it was the global TV audience, who marvelled at the dignity of his post-round TV interview, or his best pals, who were almost taken aback by McIlroy's ability to rationalise the day's events that night at the house they shared in Augusta.

Padraig Harrington admitted after Carnoustie 2007 that had he lost the Claret Jug with that double-bogey six on 18, he'd probably have spent the next six months talking to the world through his letter box.

At the very least, McIlroy's mates must have girded themselves for an evening walking on eggshells that Sunday in Augusta ... until the man himself launched into a cool, considered analysis of the afternoon's events.

Of course, McIlroy got straight back into European Tour action after Augusta, flying straight to Kuala Lumpur for the Maybank Malaysian Open, in which he defied jet-lag and exhaustion by pressing for victory right up to the final hole on Sunday.

The following week McIlroy sat down with Chubby Chandler, founder and head of his management company ISM, for a quiet chat.

The words 'post mortem' might usually be applied to such a meeting but nobody died at Augusta and certainly not McIlroy's dreams of Major Championship glory. Instead, McIlroy's performance at Augusta National was calmly dissected and it was agreed that the positives, particularly the qualities the Holywood youngster showed in leading the Masters for 63 holes, by far outweighed the negatives.

He'd looked so incredibly comfortable from tee to green over the first three days in golf's most challenging arena, McIlroy might even have challenged Tiger's 1999 scoring record.

Indeed, if his failure to win the Masters served one useful purpose, it was to leave absolutely no room for further denial of his difficulty in holing relatively short putts, especially under pressure.

So a significant course of action was taken. Contact has been made with Dave Stockton, the former US Ryder Cup captain and two-times US PGA Champion, whose reputation as one of golf's foremost putting gurus has flourished on foot of glowing tributes from two of his star 'pupils', Phil Mickelson and Annika Sorenstam.

The key for McIlroy is to build his confidence in his ability to hole short, pressure putts.

If, as one suspects, new world No6 McIlroy finds comfort under Stockton's wing, it could, even in the short term, unlock the door to Major titles.

In the meantime, McIlroy's general ball-striking should see him make a stirring defence of the title he won at Quail Hollow last May.

Official World Rankings: 1 Lee Westwood (Eng) 8.22pts, 2 Martin Kaymer (Ger) 7.55, 3 Luke Donald (Eng) 7.28, 4 Phil Mickelson (USA) 6.55, 5 Graeme McDowell (NIrl) 5.65, 6 Tiger Woods (USA) 5.54, 7 Rory McIlroy (NIrl) 5.54, 8 Paul Casey (Eng) 5.49, 9 Steve Stricker (USA) 5.34, 10 Matt Kuchar (USA) 5.24.

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