Sydney silver lining as McIlroy banishes demons
RORY McILROY exorcised all demons and banished any lingering self-doubt with one of the most dramatic and significant wins of his life at Royal Sydney Golf Club.
Victory at The Emirates Australian Open might not appear as momentous as his two Major championship successes but this one surely felt like redemption to the 24-year-old Holywood native.
Coming at the end of a fruitless and thoroughly frustrating season, McIlroy's 11th win as a professional will serve as a major watershed in his career, especially taking into account the man McIlroy overcame, US Masters champion Adam Scott.
"I'm really pleased I was able to take on one of the best players in the world down the stretch and come out on top," said the Ulsterman. "He's a phenomenal golfer, a great competitor and probably an even better guy. I feel a bit sorry that I'm the one to ruin the Triple Crown for him, but I'm happy for myself."
It's a measure of McIlroy's achievement yesterday that he's the first non-Australian golfer to win this title since Lee Westwood back in 1997.
Tens of thousands of Scott's fellow countrymen turned out yesterday to watch him follow-up recent back-to-back wins at the Australian Masters and PGA and, in just four weeks, complete only the second 'Triple Crown' in Australian golf history at their national Open.
Just seven days earlier in Melbourne, Scott teamed up with Jason Day to win the World Cup of Golf, then once again tapped a rich vein of form with a stunning course record 62 in last Thursday's first round.
With all this momentum, plus a four-stroke lead over his nearest challenger, McIlroy, going into the final 18 holes, massive galleries, on a scale formerly reserved only for their national golfing icon Greg Norman, looked forward to an occasion for all Australia to cherish.
Instead the magic drained out of the huge broom-handle putter, which over the past two years has allowed Scott to re-establish himself as a true world-beater.
And after three months in which he'd at last begun to rediscover his own Midas touch, McIlroy was finally ready, willing and brilliantly able to take full advantage with a fabulous six-under-par final round of 66.
Despite a stunning turnaround on the 72nd hole, where McIlroy sank a 16-foot birdie putt to win by one after an untidy closing bogey by his opponent, Scott struggled on the greens for much of his final-round 71, missing six putts from inside 12 feet, several of them considerably shorter.
McIlroy grabbed the initiative and, briefly, even the lead as he picked up four shots in four holes through eight, the highlight of this purple patch coming when he holed from six feet for a sweet eagle three at seven.
Still, McIlroy thought his goose was cooked after he hit his second shot into a front bunker at the par-five 16th and Scott left himself an eagle putt. Crucially, the Australian three-putted there for par, rekindling the Ulsterman's hopes.
At 17, a wicked par-three, Scott hit a superb long iron shot inside 10 feet, while McIlroy landed on the left fringe, a cricket pitch away. The Ulsterman holed from 12 feet for a great par-save, while the Australian missed his birdie putt just right, allowing McIlroy to breathe again.
Then, at 18, Scott was a touch unlucky when his approach flew barely three feet too far and took a hard bounce through the back of the green and he chipped 60 feet past for his bogey.
McIlroy knew his opponent had left himself "a tricky chip ... All of a sudden, I have a putt for a play-off. Then, all of a sudden, I have a putt for the win," he explained. "And I didn't want to go extra holes. All I focused on was my routine.
"I didn't think about whether it was a putt to win or to get the first win this year. I hit it inside right and I hit it like I'd hit a putt on the putting green any other day. Thankfully, it went in."
After his ball dropped into the cup, McIlroy clenched both fists and closed his eyes in exultation, a gesture which eloquently expressed the importance of this long-awaited win.
Yet as he headed for Southern California last night and Tiger's Northwestern Mutual Classic, his final event of 2013, McIlroy insisted he'd never lost hope during a dismal season.
"It's frustrating but I never lost belief, I never lost any of that," he insisted. "Golf's a long career and I'm 24. I get a little impatient at times and if I actually just took a step back and looked at the bigger picture, it hasn't been too bad a year.
"It's not like I plummeted off the face of the earth. I'm still sixth in the world, so it's not too bad," he smiled. "It's not the level that I feel like I can play to but I feel I'm getting back there, so it's very pleasing."