PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLORIDA l Tiger Woods had just drained an eight-foot putt for eagle at the 18th hole, and the sonic boom sound from thousands all around reverberated all the way over to where Rory McIlroy was himself lining up his eight-footer for birdie at the 13th hole.
Would the roar and Woods’ 10-under score undo Rory, or would the curly-haired kid from Holywood, Northern Ireland, gather himself and show his mettle? Seconds later, here came the resounding answer. McIlroy buried his own eight-footer to maintain a two-shot lead he managed to nurse it all the way to the frenzied finish with five straight pars.
“I wasn’t really paying much attention until he made that eagle on 18,” McIlroy said. “I heard the huge roar and it definitely wasn’t a birdie roar … I was able to hole that putt, which was very important. I knew if I could just play the last five holes at even par, it was going to be good enough.”
With one final three-foot putt at the 18th hole, the 22-year-old reigning U.S. Open champion fulfilled one of many childhood dreams. His first victory of the season on the PGA Tour pushed him to No. 1 in the world rankings and also had the dual effect of keeping runner-up Woods winless in a full-field event since November 2009.
Woods signed for a memorable 8-under 62 on Sunday, the lowest final round of his already storied career. But it wasn’t enough against McIlroy, who posted 1-under 69 and prevailed by two shots over Woods and journeyman Tom Gillis (69).
McIlroy’s trek to the top seemed almost inevitable, especially when you consider his results since last year’s PGA Championship. In his previous 10 events coming in to the Honda, he had nine top-five finishes, including a win and 11th place in Dubai. More recently, in four of his last five starts, he’s been first, second, fifth and second last week in the WGC-World Match Play, when he lost in the final to Hunter Mahan.
“For him to be No. 1, it’s a testament to how consistent he’s been,” Woods said. “You can’t get to No. 1 unless you have that consistency.”
You also can’t get to No. 1 without the sort of short game McIlroy exhibited here all week, but particularly on Sunday, when he saved par out of the sand at the infamous Bear Trap holes of No. 15 and No. 17. For the day he also was a perfect putter from inside 10 feet, making 16 of 16. A year ago at the same stretch of holes, McIlroy made three straight double-bogeys at 15, 16 and 17 in the third round.
McIlroy’s ability to bounce back was never more obvious than last season. His Masters meltdown final-round 80 left him tied for 15th after taking a four-shot 54-hole lead, but two months later McIlroy roared right back at the U.S. Open with a record-setting eight-shot victory at Congressional in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
In the months since that breathtaking triumph, McIlroy has gone through several life-altering events that hardly have had an effect on his golf game.
“Things change, and people move on,” McIlroy said at the Match Play. “I felt like I just needed a few fresh ideas and yeah, I feel very content and happy at the moment with everything that’s going on and I feel like my golf game is in good shape. I think when things are in order off the golf course, it can allow you to play better on it.”
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, among many others, believes McIlroy has all the right stuff to become a dominant player for a long time.
“I see in Rory a willingness,” Love said. “He’s very mature at a young age, a lot like Tiger. But I see a willingness to do whatever it takes to be a top player … He’s soaking it all in and doing everything he can to be a great player. I think that determination or that little something bit of extra that drives you. I think he’s got it like Tiger has.”
Far better than Tiger, of course, is McIlroy’s affable demeanor, clearly on display here in Saturday’s round.
So, too, apparently is the byplay he seemed to enjoy this week at the Honda. He was on the 17th tee on Saturday waiting for the green to clear when one fan shouted out to him.
“It was unbelievable,” McIlroy said. “The guy asked me what shampoo I used.
“I think it’s great for the fans obviously,” he added. “And when the players receive it the right way, it’s good for them.”
Clearly, McIlroy’s comfort level with his relatively new found fame has not been a burden.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do, which is be a successful golfer,” he said. “I still feel like I’ve got a long way to go to achieving what I want to. This has always been my dream to play professional golf and win big tournaments. The day where I don’t have the attention or I don’t have the scrutiny is the day I know that something is wrong.”
But on this day, everything was right for Rory McIlroy, now No. 1 in the world.