Monday 18 December 2017

Champion Hunter Mahan tips Rory McIlroy for top spot

Hunter Mahan of the United States shakes hands with Rory McIlroy after his win. Photo: Getty Images
Hunter Mahan of the United States shakes hands with Rory McIlroy after his win. Photo: Getty Images

Mark Garrod

HUNTER Mahan rates Rory McIlroy "the best player in the world right now for sure" - but it is the American who has won the first world championship of the year and Luke Donald who still tops the rankings for one more week at least.

Having lived up to the billing in the way he beat Lee Westwood in the semi-finals of the Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, McIlroy still needed to beat Mahan to take the number one spot.

The 22-year-old played the last seven holes of the match in five under par with an eagle and three birdies, but that all came after he had three bogeys and a double-bogey in a front-nine 39 and it added up to a 2&1 defeat.

"I just left myself too much to do," said Northern Ireland's US Open champion, whose next chance to dethrone Donald comes in this week's Honda Classic in Florida.

"It wasn't to be, but I didn't have my best game with me this week."

There was still plenty to admire, though, and given that they used to be stablemates he took extra pleasure in getting the better of Westwood, who finished the event with double defeat after also losing the third-place play-off to Mahan's compatriot Mark Wilson.

Westwood led McIlroy by three after four, but the youngster hit back with six birdies in eight holes and won 3&1.

"I'm happy with how I'm playing and hopefully it won't be long before I'm winning again," added McIlroy. "I've got two more tournaments before The Masters and that's what I'm building up to."

It was at Augusta last April, of course, that he led by four with a round to go and then crashed to an 80.

The disappointment of that was more than made up for by winning his first major title only two months later, but becoming the youngest-ever winner of a World Golf Championship since they began in 1999 would have been another feather in his cap.

Mahan now has two of them. He won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron in 2010, although that was rather forgotten two months later when his defeat to Graeme McDowell at Celtic Manor handed Europe the Ryder Cup.

Nobody can say he had an easy path to the trophy last week. He beat three of his cup team-mates in Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar, former USPGA champion YE Yang, Wilson and then McIlroy.

And he said afterwards: "It feels good. I didn't realise how difficult it is to win this week because it is six matches and you're playing against the best players in the world."

And he believes McIlroy is destined to top the rankings sooner or later, and joked: "Deep down I wanted to postpone that crowning of the number one player in the world for Rory.

"He'll get there. He's phenomenal, he's really talented. He'll be number one eventually."

Westwood said after his semi-final loss: "I think we both played well - it was just one of those typical match play games that went a lot with momentum."

He considered the long 11th critical. The Ulsterman's wild second shot was heading for the desert and possibly out of bounds, but hit a cart path and finished on grass near the green. It was halved in birdies.

"That sort of thing can change a match," said Westwood. "Go back to level there, it's a different kettle of fish. I thought it was big turning point.

"But I'm playing great. I've shot four or five under every day and that's pretty good golf."

Westwood still earned almost £309,000 for fourth, while McIlroy went away with £535,000.

But the big winner in every sense was Mahan - the trophy, £882,000 and a climb into the world's top 10 for the first time.

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