Rory McIlroy entered the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship as the no. 1 seed and the no. 1 player in the world. He solidified both positions by beating his opponent in seven straight matches, including Gary Woodland 4&2 in the finals.
McIlroy also headed into the week with the prospect of sitting ringside at what was being hailed as the fight of the century, the Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao showdown, in Las Vegas. He had paid an exorbitant amount of money for his tickets — which he wouldn’t disclose in his pre-tournament press conference — and planned to make the back-and-forth trip regardless of whether he was still in the golf tournament. His position obviously changed on Saturday evening when his match against Paul Casey went into extra holes and McIlroy likely wouldn’t have made it to MGM Grand for the fight in time even if he’d tried.
“I guess this fight was supposed to happen in March 2010,” said McIlroy on Tuesday. “I went to Pacquiao in ’09, and then I think Maywheather fought later on that year, and then they were supposed to fight the next year and it never happened so sort of being waiting five years for this happen. I always said if these two guys fought each other, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to go. Luckily, we’re somewhere close where I can get in line and hopefully I’m still a part of this tournament that at that time but it just wasn’t an opportunity that I was going to miss.”
Well, the good news was that McIlroy was still in the running to win the event. However, instead of sitting ringside, McIlroy watched Mayweather beat Pacquiao in the media center with a bunch of scribes and tournament staffers, according to multiple reports. His manager Sean O’Flaherty ordered some pizzas for everyone. Not exactly the glitz and glam the now 10-time PGA Tour winner had expected for his Saturday night.
Now, everyone knows treating the media like we are actual people pays off in dividends, and perhaps it provided some karmic justice on Sunday afternoon for McIlroy, who had paid big money to sit close enough to feel the boxers’ sweat drops.
“I am a big believer in karma,” said McIlroy, who became the third player to reach 10 victories on the PGA Tour before the age of 26 (it’s his birthday on Monday). “Obviously I think I give myself a much better chance of watching it in there than trying to make it to Vegas, that’s for sure.”
McIlroy already had a long week. In all, he played seven matches and turned out he had to win three just on Sunday. First, he took down Jason Dufner 5&4. Next, he beat Brandt Snedeker 2-up. Then, he rallied against Billy Horschel in 20 holes after McIlroy was two-down with two to play. In the round of 16, he defeated Hideki Matsuyama with ease 6&5. Following that, he had to win three matches on Sunday essentially.
As mentioned previously, he battled against a tough opponent in Casey in the quarterfinals. McIlroy was losing to Casey for most of the match. Heading into the par-3 17th, he was 1-down with two to play. McIlroy squared up the match with a par and fought hard to eventually take him down in 22 holes on a chilly Sunday morning.
In the semifinals, he faced Jim Furyk and McIlroy found himself in a similar situation as he did in the quarterfinals — once again, he was 1-down with two to play. He dug deep and birdied the 17th and then drained a 40-plus footer for eagle on 18 to close out Furyk 1-up.
“In match play you definitely — in the positions that I found myself in, you have to dig a little bit deeper,” said McIlroy, who now has two WGC victories, with his win last August at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “You have to try and find things from places you don’t know if they’re there or not. And I was able to produce a couple of key shots when I needed to this week.
“As a mental test, I don’t think we face anything tougher. I think we face things just as tough in terms of majors. The U.S. Open gets really tough and firm and the Masters is always a mental grind every year, but to play seven matches in five days is as tough as it’s going to get for us.”
Finally, he took on Woodland. Fatigue likely hit both the players and they didn’t kick off the finals in the finest of forms. McIlroy made two bogeys in his first three holes, but Woodland bogeyed three of the first four. Then, McIlroy righted the ship and drained three consecutive birdies on nos. 5-7 to take a 4-up lead. From there, he never looked back.
“That stretch on the front nine, it was really important,” said McIlroy. “The conditions were a little more blustery this afternoon, so it made things a little trickier. But once I got a lead and made a couple of birdies, as you said, in the middle of the front nine and got that lead, I felt a lot more comfortable.
“I think sometimes finals can’t rival the quality of previous matches. And even today, we both played pretty well, but I’m sure we played better golf throughout the week. But I’m happy to obviously get up, I think I was 4up through 9, and he came back at me a little bit early on.
“But he let me away with one on 13. He didn’t convert there. And I took advantage of that on the next couple of holes.”
What I found the most interesting about McIlroy’s victory and his route to the winner’s circle was the way he found another gear when he was losing late in the match and managed to turn those around and win. I’m not sure if the McIlroy we knew two years ago would’ve pulled off the same result. The player and person we’re seeing now is just as talented a player, but also a more mature one that knows how to dig deep and not give up when the going gets tough. In other words, he has raised his game to another level. Well, obviously, you say, he’s the number one player in the world. However, he’s much more equipped for the position than he was two years ago.
I recalled a quote from McIlroy a little over two years ago. It was just after he had walked off the golf course due to a “toothache” midway through the second round of the Honda Classic. In an exclusive interview with SI’s Michale Bamberger, he apologized for his actions. He also talked about his close friendship with Woods and what he could learn from the 14-time major champion.
“He might be the best athlete ever, in terms of his ability to grind it out,” McIlroy said on Sunday night. “I could have a bit more of that, if I’m honest.”
(In another interview sometime in 2013, I believe, McIlroy said something similar, but I can’t find the quote.)
Besides solidifying his place at the top of golf’s world rankings, McIlroy showed this week that he has learned to deal with adversity and dig deeper when necessary.
“I think you’re definitely just thinking about your next shot or your next hole or whatever it is,” said McIlroy when asked about his mentality in the matches where he staged late rallies. “But in my mind, it was always if I can just apply a little bit of pressure, just make them feel it a little bit. When you’re 2up with two to play, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and you’re quite relaxed.
“If the guy applies just that little bit of pressure to you, it can make a world of difference. And I was able to do that in my matches when I needed to do against Billy and Paul and against Jim. And when I applied that little bit of pressure, I was able to take advantage of that.
“I the hit a good chip shot against Paul last night on 17, and he blew his putt by and missed the one coming back. So just a chip shot might have gotten into his head a little bit. Same thing against Billy on that 17th hole. I had a really good tee shot in there and just him seeing that tee shot might have made him feel a little more pressure and I was able to hole the putt.
“That’s all you’re thinking about, just put them under any sort of pressure that you can, and see how they react to it.”