McIlroy wins Honda and becomes golf’s new No. 1

Rory McIlroy, the new No. 1 player in golf, is not easily

rattled.

He didn’t see a scoreboard in the final round of the Honda

Classic until he walked onto the eighth green, looked at the large

video screen to his left and saw that Tiger Woods – who started the

day nine shots behind – already was tied for fourth, four shots

behind.

McIlroy made a 10-foot putt for his first birdie of the day.

The pressure of trying to win and reach No. 1 in the world

didn’t really hit him until he was lining up a putt on the 13th

green at PGA National, his concentration shattered by a cheer that

could be heard a mile away from the 18th green. It was so loud that

McIlroy not only knew what it was for – an eagle on the 18th green

– but who it was for.

Tiger Woods.

”I wasn’t really paying much attention until he made that eagle

on 18,” McIlroy said. ”I heard the huge roar. And it definitely

wasn’t a birdie roar. That’s when I knew that he probably got to

10.”

That would be 10-under par for Woods, courtesy of a 62, his

lowest score ever in a final round in his 15 years on tour. The

birdie-eagle finish, just like the Tiger Woods of old, pulled him

within one shot of the lead. McIlroy still faced the scariest

stretch of golf at PGA National, with water in play on every shot

over the last four holes.

What followed was a clutch performance worthy of the new No.

1.

McIlroy made an 8-foot birdie putt on the 13th to restore a

two-shot cushion. Standing some 65 feet away, in grass so deep he

could barely see the golf ball, he gouged out a wedge to 4 feet for

a par he badly needed to keep momentum. On the two par 3s over the

water, Nos. 15 and 17, he splashed out of a bunker toward the water

and saved par both times.

The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland finally played it safe at

the end, making par on the last hole for a 1-under 69 that was

meaningful in so many ways.

It made him the 16th player to be No. 1 in the world, and the

second-youngest behind Woods, who was 21 when he first reached No.

1 after the 1997 U.S. Open.

It was his fifth career win, three of those on the PGA Tour,

which includes his record-setting performance last year at

Congressional to win the U.S. Open, and a 62 in the final round to

win at Quail Hollow.

And he won despite Woods, that red shirt brighter than it has

been in two years, posting a score that McIlroy didn’t think

possible in such blustery conditions Sunday. Lee Westwood, whom

McIlroy beat in the semifinals of the Match Play Championship a

week earlier in Arizona, closed with a 63.

Even in such strong company, this day belonged to golf’s new No.

1.

”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.”

However long, it sets the tone for a big year in golf –

especially with the Masters a month away.

Even in defeat, Woods showed that he is hitting the ball well

enough not to be counted out at any time. His 62, which featured

two eagles in the final round, was nearly nine shots better than

the average score Sunday.

”It feels good, because I felt like I was close,” Woods said

after the 28th runner-up finish of his PGA Tour career, and his

best result since he was second at the 2009 Tour championship.

”I’ve been close to shooting this score, or scores like this. And

it was just a matter of time before things all fell into

place.”

Tom Gillis birdied the last hole for a 69 and tied Woods for

second. Westwood was alone in fourth.

The 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th was a big moment for Woods.

The eagle on the final moment was a shot under pressure that had

not been seen in some time. With a 5-iron from 216 yards, he aimed

at a tunnel beneath the grandstand and ripped it, the ball clearing

a bunker and settling 8 feet away.

”It was a lot of fun out there,” Graeme McDowell said. ”It

was just roars going up all over the golf course. For Rory to go

out today with a two-shot lead and have Tiger shoot 62 on him and

Westwood shoot 63, it just shows how hard it is to win golf

tournaments on any tour in the world, but especially this tour.

”This golf season just got a lot more spicy.”

But it starts with McIlroy, who had been building to this

occasion when he would replace Luke Donald at No. 1. Since injuring

himself at the PGA Championship trying to hit a 7-iron with a tree

root in his way, McIlroy had finished out of the top five only once

in 12 tournaments he played.

He won the Hong Kong Open, along with an unofficial event

against a limited, world-class field at the Shanghai Masters. He

was runner-up at the Dunhill Links in Scotland, the Korean Open,

the Abu Dhabi Championship and the Match Play.

And he won the Honda Classic, finishing at 12-under 268, with

two former No. 1 players making a move.

”It was a lot more meaningful,” McIlroy said. ”I think the

way I won today was great. I missed a few greens coming in. I was

able to get up-and-down. I made a couple of big par saves early,

which kept my momentum. It was just one of those days. There was a

62 and a 63 out there, which is unbelievable playing.

”I just needed to focus on my game and do what I needed to

do,” he said. ”And thankfully, that’s what happened.”

He hugged his father on the 18th green, posed with the crystal

trophy and flashed a No. 1 sign. Before long, he was off to New

York to spend a few days with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline

Wozniacki, before going to Miami for a World Golf Championship.

It will be his first tournament as No. 1, a spot that McIlroy

intends to keep as long as he can.

”There’s very few players as good at him at his age out there

winning tournaments,” three-time major champion Padraig Harrington

said. ”There are guys with potential, but he’s already delivered.

And he has a good balance in his life. He doesn’t look like a guy

who is going to burn out. He looks like he’s going to be here for a

while.”