Rory McIlroy knew exactly what he needed to do at the Honda Classic to overtake Luke Donald as number one in the world rankings. It was simple (and the same as a week earlier at the Match Play): win.
With Tiger Woods, who had teed off two hours before the last group, hitting heroic shots that created roars so loud the ground shook at PGA National, rival Lee Westwood also making a run, and journeyman Tom Gillis holding steadier than expected, Rory didn’t flinch.
He started the day with a two-shot lead over Gillis and rookie Harris English, who has seen better days (welcome to the bigs, kid!). English dropped out of contention quickly with a few doubles on the front nine.
Despite the roars around the course, McIlroy knew he still had a cushion and used it to perfection. “All (Rory) had to do is not have a high score,” said his caddie J.P. Fitzgerald while Rory was signing his scorecard. “He wasn’t protecting (the lead). He made all the putts he needed to…We were in control.”
When Rory was walking up to the 12th green, where he had a chip from the thick rough, Tiger had just birdied No. 17. Rory looked back in the direction, like he was wondering what had just happened, but he didn’t have to ask — he knew it was Tiger. He caught the ball a little heavy and left himself a ten-footer to save par. He missed, but it was the only hole he didn’t convert for par. I thought he might have been distracted, but it actually didn’t bother him when I asked him about it in his post-round presser.
The only roar he really heard was on 18 (at least he thinks it was).
“Obviously I saw a couple of guys making a charge, and I heard the roar on 18 when Tiger made eagle and I was just about to line up my putt for birdie on 13,” said McIlroy. “I was able to hole that putt, which was very important, and you know, I knew if I could just play the last five holes at even par, it was going to be good enough.”
Until Tiger rolled in the eagle and got to 10-under after shooting a brilliant 62, Rory hadn’t been paying much attention. Still, he knew he had a two-shot cushion. Conditions were on his side, too. The high winds from earlier in the day suddenly calmed to a slight breeze, which would make the daunting Bear Trap a bit less intimidating.
Rory didn’t have the best ballstriking day — he hit nine fairways and 11 greens — but his short game made up for it. In fact, his chipping and short-range putting has improved tremendously compared to a year ago.
“It’s much better,” said Rory, laughing, when asked to characterize his short game compared to a year ago. “I just feel like I can get the ball up-and-down more. It comes from practice and just experience of maybe missing greens and experimenting with a few different shots. I felt like I got a better out of the rough.
“And the up-and-down on 14 was probably the best one I had made all week. It was a terrible lie and to get that one up-and-down was very nice. I think that’s been part of the reason why I started to become so consistent is when I do miss greens, I’m able to get it up-and-down and not make as many mistakes.”
And that’s what it takes to reach the number one in the world rankings.
“I think Rory has had, what, one finish out of the top-10 in the last ten starts or something like that,” said Woods in his post-round presser. “So that’s pretty impressive playing. That’s what you have to do. You’re not going to win every time you tee it up, but you can be consistent, you can be close and in the hunt and that’s what he’s done.”
I find McIlroy’s short game compared to a year ago at the Honda Classic, along with his mental toughness, the most impressive and impactful. He looks like a different person and player than 12 months ago. And it’s certainly helped him rise to number one in the world.
Added Rory’s close friend Graeme McDowell: “That’s the biggest difference in Rory’s game. A couple years ago, yeah, he was probably a little questionable from inside six feet. His stroke was a little bit kind of lifty and across the line. The work he did with Dave Stockton Jr. pre-Congressional last year has made a huge amount of difference, and now he believes he’s a great putter. That was the missing link, because the rest of his game is all there.”
Rory had eight one-putts on Sunday, six of which were to save par and two of which were for birdie.
“(My putting) has been great, especially today,” he said. “I made a couple of big par saves early and then made the putts I needed to. The only one I missed was on 12. I felt like I hit a good put there and it didn’t go in. That was big this week — saving par, which I managed to do today very well.”
After his up-and-down of the week on 14, he bailed out to the left bunker on his tee shot on the par-3 15th, the start of the three-hole stretch called the Bear Trap. With the pin dangerously close to the hazard and the grain sloping away from him, Rory knocked it to about six feet and then made the putt. On the par-3 17th, arguably the hardest and most intimidating hole not just at PGA National but at any tour stop, he hit it left again in the bunker. (I guess if you’re going to miss the green, it might as well be the only place you can without getting wet.)
As he walked up to the green, fans started chanting, “Rory, Rory, Rory!” Some over-served drunks yelled things like, “It’s only Tiger!” or “USA, USA!” along with other taunts, but it didn’t faze him.
He knocked his bunker shot to tap-in range on 17. One fan in the grandstands hollered, “Tiger who?!”
Rory smashed his tee shot on No. 18 — which made quite the statement. It wasn’t over yet, but he was confidently cruising to the win with a two-shot lead going into the 72nd hole. He knew he wasn’t going to choke or dump one in the water (he laid up with a wedge on his second shot and then hit another wedge into the green). He exuded confidence. I never sensed any nerves or saw him waver despite knowing the Guy Wearing Red or frenemy Lee Westwood were within striking distance.
But it sure made the win all the more sweeter.
“It was a lot more meaningful,” said Rory, who hopped on a plane to NYC to spend a few days with his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. “I think the way I won today, as well, was great…I just needed to focus on my game and do what I needed to do, and thankfully that’s what happened.”
The 22-year-old McIlroy has always been mature for his age, but he’s grown up a lot in the past year as a person and a golfer.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen tee-to-green, period,” said G-Mac. “I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger early- to- mid 2000s when Tiger was the man, but Rory McIlroy is the best player I’ve ever seen. As soon as he learned how to putt, he was going to be a dominating force, and you’re starting to see that now.”
It was never a question that Rory would ascend to world number one; it was just a matter of when. Now that he has, I have a feeling he’ll be a mainstay atop the rankings and perhaps his reign will last much longer than his recent predecessors — Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald (though he held on for 40+ weeks).
Welcome to the Rory era. Your move, Tiger.
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, Rainier Ehrhardt))