Thursday 14 December 2017

McIlroy's No 1 bid comes up short

William S Callahan

RORY McILROY'S brave bid to become Irish golf's first world No 1 was snuffed out by Hunter Mahan as the American beat the Ulsterman 2&1 in the Accenture Match Play final.

World rankings may come and go yet the satisfaction Rory McIlroy achieved from yesterday's semi-final victory over his arch-rival Lee Westwood should glow forever.

It's astonishing how much 22-year-old McIlroy has grown as a golfer in the 27 months since Westwood "bullied" him at the 2009 Dubai World Championship, the Englishman emerging on that occasion with the Race to Dubai title and the bragging rights.

Well McIlroy showed he ain't going to be bullied by Westwood no more!

Sadly, however, the youngster expended so much nervous energy in coming from three down after four holes to win his war of attrition with Westwood by 3&1 that he ran out of steam against Mahan in the first Accenture final to be contested by two players in their 20s.

McIlroy's swing, almost metronomic in the morning, lost its fluidity after lunch.

Three down after playing the opening eight holes in three-over, any prospect of recovery expired as Mahan (29) landed a sweet tap-in birdie at 10.

Mahan, beaten by Graeme McDowell at the climax to the 2010 Ryder Cup, broke the deadlock with a super tee shot to within inches for birdie at six.

Yet McIlroy hit his own prospects of a first World Golf Championship victory for six with uncharacteristically sloppy play at the next two holes.

He made a desperate double-bogey from sand-wedge range in the fairway at the par-four seventh, criminally following Mahan into a deep swale to the left of the green.

McIlroy's first chip then rolled back to his feet and he missed the 10-foot bogey putt for the half.

After laying up out of a bunker at the long eighth, McIlroy hit his pitch through the back of the green and missed from eight feet for par to fall three behind against Mahan.

However, digging deep inside himself, McIlroy bravely chipped in for eagle at 11, then cut the deficit to two with a winning birdie at 14, one of a splendid hat-trick he would complete on 15, if only for a half.

It was too little, too late and Mahan, five-under for his round, wrapped up a second WGC title to go with the 2010 Bridgestone at 17.

"I had a great back nine, but there was a stretch around five, six, seven, eight which probably cost me," admitted McIlroy after his loss to Mahan.

"The shot at seven (when the ball rolled back to his feet down the hill) was just a bit of a mental error," he added.

Defeat meant Mahan denied McIlroy the honour of becoming Ireland's first world No 1 -- the Holywood star needed to win at the Ritz-Carlton to nudge Luke Donald off the top of the heap.

Yet, judging by McIlroy's morning glory against Westwood, it's just a matter of time before he confirms his status as Tiger's successor as the most exciting player in golf by reaching the No 1 spot.

The rivalry between these one-time ISM stablemates is as sharp as the bitter tweets they used exchange before McIlroy pulled the plug on their Twitter relationship soon after last Autumn's switch to Dublin firm Horizon.

Yet both insist their relationship is 'good'.

"Rory doesn't want to spend time with the people who manage me and I don't want to spend time with the people that manage Rory," the Englishman said.

"But there's nothing strained between the two of us. It's still the same as it was."

After yesterday, however, it's clear McIlroy's on-course relationship with Westwood is not the same.

Since his record-shattering victory at last June's US Open, McIlroy has shed the youthful uncertainty which dogged him right up to his infamous US Masters meltdown.


He showed the calm resolve of a Major champion after Westwood slammed him with the golfing equivalent of three rib-bending hooks to the body yesterday morning.

When a fighter as formidable as Westwood lands punches that hard and that early, the temptation is to panic. Yet to open up and take risks would be courting disaster on a course as capricious as this Jack Nicklaus design.

Instead, McIlroy remained calm, showing enough faith in his game to select his shots carefully, go for safer pins with his wedges and play for the heart of the green when discretion was required.

He won the fifth in par after Westwood's approach flew through the back of the green. Then he narrowed the lead further at six by sinking a 27-foot putt for birdie.

This was the first of six birdies in nine holes -- a glorious purple patch in which he drew level at the par-five eighth, moved one-up at nine and took Westwood and the match by the scruff of the neck on 12 and 13.

It ended with a perfunctory handshake after Westwood's hopes, lifted by a superb drive and 15-foot putt for eagle on the 321-yard 15th hole, were extinguished by bogey at 17.

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