The most impressing thing about the way Rory McIlroy claimed the world No. 1 ranking on Sunday with a two-shot victory in the Honda Classic in Florida was the way he handled himself during the final round.
The final step in reaching the pinnacle of his sport was more about staying calm under pressure and making smart decisions instead of being super-aggressive and trying to shoot the lowest round of his career.
It was cool watching him maintain his cool, never wavering off course.
While McIlroy’s nerves must have been going a mile-a-minute throughout the final round, he converted what seemed to be about 400 feet worth of par putts during the final 18 holes. Four of those putts came in the final six holes he played – immediately following Tigers’ birdie-eagle finish that capped an 8-under 62 and pulled Woods to within one shot of the lead.
No problem. McIlroy responded with a birdie, three clutch par saves, and then a routine two-putt par on the 18th. He wisely decided to lay up with his second shot, rather than go for the green. The strategy enabled him to shoot a 1-under 69 to secure his third title on the PGA tour.
It didn’t have the pizzazz of Tiger’s round, but it didn’t matter.
“I heard the roar on 18 when Tiger made eagle and I was just about to line up my putt for birdie on 13,” McIlroy said. “I was able to hole that putt, which was very important. I knew if I could just play the last five holes at even par, it was going to be good enough.”
Indeed it was.
“It was tough today, especially seeing Tiger make a charge,” McIlroy said. “I knew par golf would probably be good enough. To shoot 1 under in these conditions, when you go into the round with the lead, is very nice. And I was just able to get the job done.”
McIlroy won and at 22 years, 10 months, becomes the second-youngest player in history to reach golf’s summit. Woods was 21 years, 6 months when he became No. 1 in 1997, holding the top spot for a staggering 623 weeks.
“It was always a dream of mine to become the world No. 1 and the best player in the world or whatever you want to call it,” McIlroy said. “But I didn’t know what I would be able to get here this quickly. Hopefully, I can hold onto it for a little longer.”
McIlroy, replacing Luke Donald at the top, becomes the 16th player to be No. 1 since the world ranking began in 1986. He also is the fourth player in the last 16 months — since Woods abdicated the top spot after a five-year reign – to reach the top of the standings.
Being No. 1 is something McIlroy has envisioned for a long time.
“I always had putts on the putting green when I was 10 to beat Tiger Woods or to beat Phil Mickelson,” he said. “But hopefully it would be great to turn that into reality at some point. They are the best two golfers of this generation, and obviously Tiger’s the best by a long way. It’s quite an honor just to be mentioned in the same sentence as those two guys.”
Woods, meanwhile had the best final-round score of his career and could be on verge of restoring his on-course prowess. And the U.S. could use a shot in the arm from one of its own.
Europeans hold down the top four spots in the world rankings with Americans Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson ranked fifth and sixth, respectively.
But Tiger is making a charge and definitely rates as a strong candidate to win the WGC Cadillac tournament that starts Thursday in Miami. The field includes McIlroy and Mickelson. That is going to be some kind of must-see TV.
The tie for second is Tiger’s best finish since a runner-up at the 2009 TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola.
“To me, it was the old Tiger back, the guy that I remember,” said Ernie Els, who played alongside Woods on Sunday.”He never missed a shot or made a bad swing.”
There were other witnesses.
“He hit it good all week, but today was a different level,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie. “It was awesome. It was fun. He hit every shot exactly the way he wanted to hit it — little hooks, little fades, anything he wanted.”
Woods agreed that he finally is playing Tiger-like.
“Overall, my finishes have been pretty good since Australia on,” he said. “It was just a matter of keep building, keep sticking with it. I’m hitting more solid shots, I’m making more putts, my speed is getting back. Everything is coming, and I just need to keep progressing. I just need to keep sticking with it, and it’s going to turn.”
After needing 34 putts in the opening round, Woods never had more than 28 the rest of the week and on Sunday took just 26. He also was first in driving distance, third in greens hit and eighth in fairways.
— McIlroy becomes the fifth-consecutive international winner of the Honda Classic and the seventh overall since 2005, joining Padraig Harrington (2005), Luke Donald (2006), Ernie Els (2008), Y.E. Yang (2009), Camilo Villegas (2010) and Rory Sabbatini (2011). The only American winner during that time was Mark Wilson in 2007.
— McIlroy is now two for three when carrying the lead into the final round on TOUR. He held a four-stroke lead after 54 holes at the 2011 Masters before finishing T15 following a final-round 80. Two months later he was eight strokes ahead after 54 holes at the U.S. Open and went on to an eight-stroke win. This week, he led Tom Gillis and Harris English by two strokes.
— McIlroy’s three victories on the PGA TOUR (he also has three wins on the European Tour) have come by two strokes (2012 Honda Classic), four strokes (2010 Wells Fargo Championship) and eight strokes (2011 U.S. Open).