High drama as misfiring Rory throws title away
RORY McILROY’S hopes of a triumphant return to the scene of his worst nightmare on a golf course were obliterated as the Honda Classic turned into a demolition derby.
The Ulsterman lost out to fellow 24-year-old Russell Henley in a four-way play-off after a series of stunning errors down the stretch stirred echoes of his dismal surrender midway through the second round of last year’s tournament at PGA National.
Still, McIlroy produced the shot of his young life to force his way into sudden death: a phenomenal fairway metal from 245 yards to 14 feet at 18 which yielded a two-putt birdie four and a tie with Henley, Ryan Palmer and Scot Russell Knox on eight-under.
Yet Henley clinched a second PGA Tour title to go with the 2013 Sony Open by making birdie four on the second visit to 18. McIlroy could only make par on the tie hole after hitting his second shot long into the back bunker.
McIlroy looked a cast-iron favourite for his seventh US PGA Tour victory and 12th in all as a professional as he surged imperiously to 13-under-par, three clear of his nearest challengers in his first five holes on the Champion Course.
Yet a series of gaffes, completely out of character with his performance on the three previous days, tore the rug from underneath McIlroy as he wrapped up the tournament with a chastening four-over-par 74.
Flashbacks to last year’s second round were inevitable as McIlroy hit a horribly heavy shot out of a fairway bunker and into the water on the way to the double-bogey six at 16 that left his title hopes on tenterhooks. The Holywood star appeared to have thrown away the tournament when he then made bogey out of the back bunker at the par three 17th.
The infamous Bear Trap once again bit down hard on McIlroy, only this year he showed the right stuff. If his towering drive into the heart of the final fairway was good, the fairway metal he hit into the green would have entered folklore had he made the eagle putt to win outright.
Instead, he tapped in for birdie to earn his play in a play-off nobody would have believed possible hours earlier.
After starting the final round two clear of his nearest challenger, Henley, McIlroy eased further ahead with a lovely pitch and putt birdie at the par-five third, yet a couple of slipshod bogeys at five and seven were harbingers.
Still, even when he failed for the first time at this tournament to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker to save his par at nine, there was no hint of panic; after all, his nearest challengers, appeared reluctant to seize the day.
Henley was too busy trying to extricate himself from a string of sticky situations caused by his wayward driving, while Palmer wasted a procession of chances by pulling putt after birdie putt left of the hole.
Yet when McIlroy made yet another bogey at 12, courtesy of his first three-putt in 186 holes stretching back to September, the complexion of this tournament changed entirely.
Suddenly, he was tied with Palmer and Knox on 10-under, though the latter clearly didn’t know it as he attempted a suicide shot from under the lip of the fairway at 14 and sent his ball rocketing to the right and into the water for double-bogey.
If McIlroy looked to be well in control of his faculties as he made a superb up-and-down out of a greenside bunker at 15, his collapse at 16 told a different story. Had Palmer known of McIlroy’s travails there and that par at the last was enough to clinch victory, one suspects he’d have played for the heart of the green and safety. Instead, he went for the
flag, wound up short-sided in deep greenside rough and made bogey. It cost him – eventually.
Earlier, Tiger Woods’ challenge for the Masters was thrown into doubt when lower back spasms forced him to withdraw with five holes remaining. The world No 1 was five-over for his round, level par for the tournament, when he limped off on the 13th green.
“The spasms started this morning warming up,” said Woods in a statement, revealing it was “too early to tell yet” if he’d be fit to defend his Cadillac World Golf Championship title this week at Doral.
Graeme McDowell’s tournament fizzled out with a 71 that left him with a share of 46th on even-par. After complaining on Saturday that he didn’t feel 100 per cent, the Portrush man’s golf looked off-colour as he made four successive bogeys on the front nine yesterday.
Yet these are good days for the Ulsterman and his new wife Kristin, who expect their first child, a girl, in September.