Rory McIlroy completes meteoric rise to No 1
RORY McILROY is blessed with the talent to make dreams come true ... as the George Best of golf proved yet again yesterday as he completed his meteoric ascent to the top of the world.
Victory at the Honda Classic and a cherished place history as Irish golf's first World No 1 certainly did not come easy to McIlroy, just 22, who needed to show true grit in scaling this, his own personal Everest.
Especially with Tiger Woods suddenly rediscovering his old Sunday matinee magic in that crimson jersey.
The Champion course at PGA National echoed to roars not heard since 2009 as Tiger, 36, rounded-off a stunning eight-under par 62, the lowest final round of his career, by holing an eight foot putt for his second eagle of the day at 18 to set the mark in the clubhouse on 10-under.
Out on the golf course, McIlroy heard the noise but nothing was going to intrude on his concentration or composure as he closed in on his lifelong ambition.
"Since age 10, I've been telling people that I wanted to become the best golfer in the world and win at the Majors," McIlroy said. "I really have dreamed of this day.
"Every win is special, but this one, with being able to get to the top of the world is very special indeed. It's fantastic to be here (at No 1) at the minute and hopefully it's something I can hold onto for a while."
The 2011 US Open champion's mum Rosie and dad Gerry were there to share in this special coming of age, while McIlroy flew straight to New York last night for a special celebration with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, Denmark's recent Tennis World No 1.
"There will be some celebrating done tonight alright," he said with a smile.
A final round 69 left the 22-year-old two on 12-under, two ahead of second-placed Tiger and Tom Gillis, propelling him past England's Luke Donald to the top of the rankings.
If the Holywood hero had thrilled with his sorcery in balmy conditions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, he showed staggering maturity and self-control yesterday on an afternoon for heroes at the toughest PGA Tour course outside the Majors.
Just 16 people have made it to the summit of world golf and only one of them, Woods, was younger than McIlroy.
And with every respect to Donald or Europe's other recent No 1's, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, they were merely holding the position in trust for the most talented and exciting young players in the sport.
Seasoned veterans would have struggled to cope with the challenges fate threw at young McIlroy yesterday, never mind a young man just four-and-a-half years into his professional career.
"It was tough today, especially seeing Tiger make a charge and posting 10-under. I knew par golf was going to be good enough on a course this tough and it was really good to shoot 69," said McIlroy, whose short game was the rock upon which victory was built.
Unlike last year's record-breaking romp to US Open victory at Congressional, McIlroy was repeatedly asked searching questions on a course redesigned by one of his most trusted mentors, the legendary Jack Nicklaus.
As taut nerves and swirling breezes made distance control difficult, McIlroy left himself gut-wrenching putts for par on the second, fifth and seventh before he landed his first birdie of the day at eight to restore his lead to two.
When self-confessed PGA Tour journeyman Gillis undermined his prospects of a first victory in 22 years as a pro by three-putting for bogey at nine, McIlroy found himself three ahead and seemingly comfortable on 12-under. Yet his ordeal was far from over.
If he appeared to get a lucky break at 12 when his pulled tee shot bounced off a spectator and back towards the fairway, McIlroy still made his first bogey in 23 holes out of the deep rough.
Yet, seemingly impervious to the hullaballoo echoing across the course from the Tiger fest at 18, McIlroy coolly sank a nine foot putt for a superb bounce-back birdie at 13.
Even greater trials arose at 14, where he hit a nervy approach into bottomless greenside rough, and at 15, the entrance to the infamous Bear Trap, where McIlroy's tee shot landed in a greenside bunker.
On both occasions, he artfully dodged potentially deadly consequences. In the commentary booth, Nicklaus said approvingly: "These are the challenges you have to face if you want to the World No 1 and Rory showed right there he's equal to them."
Another sweet up-and-down for par at 17 copper-fastened McIlroy's place as top of the Honda scrambling stats. "He's managed it well," said Nicklaus. "Rory has played within himself, that's the key to what he's done here today."
McIlroy already has made a fortune in golf. Yesterday's $1.03m cheque boosts his winnings to more than $12m in a career which features six victories around the world, three of them in the last five amazing months. Since last August's PGA Championship, McIlroy has posted a staggering 11 top-five finishes in 12 outings.
Yet the future is more exciting. His showdown with Tiger at The Cadillac Championship in Doral this week and, especially, in next month's US Masters will be relished throughout sport.
McIlroy's arch rival Westwood is also in impressive form -- the Englishman fought his way into fourth with a superb 63 yesterday.
Graeme McDowell, recovered from a stuttering start, in which he picked up three bogeys and a birdie in the first four holes, to post a 69 and clinch a top-10 finish on five-under.
Padraig Harrington endured a waking nightmare in the blustery conditions as he closed with a shocking nine-over par 79, his worst round on the US Tour since shooting a second round 80 at the 2007 US Open.