Rory McIlroy headed for the Masters with a new sponsor and even bigger injection of confidence after he finished second to a brilliant Martin Laird in the Valero Texas Open.
The world No 2 put his stuttering start to the season well and truly behind him when he made eight birdies in a closing 66 to finish two shots behind Scot Laird, who kept him at bay with three closing birdies for a nine under par, course record equalling 63.
Whatever about his lucrative new deal with watchmakers Omega, McIlroy (who earned $669,600) couldn’t have timed his return to form any better as he goes to Augusta National with high hopes of winning the third leg of the career grand slam
“Everything I wanted to accomplish this week, I accomplished,” McIlroy said after a brilliant performance in winds that gusted to 25 mph. “I’m very happy that I’m going into next week with my game in good shape and my confidence level pretty high.
“I thought if I got to 12-under that it might have been good enough today. But Martin played just too good and holed so many putts. It was hard to keep up.”
McIlroy had just 26 putts on Sunday and while he might regret bogeys at the fourth and 10th, he was pleased that his short game is now far sharper heading into the first major of the season following his struggles so far this year.
“I think it’s just about getting my short game as sharp as possible around there,” McIlroy said. “I think everything else is pretty good. Iron play is good. Driving the ball - I didn’t quite drive the ball that well today but my three-wood was working pretty good.”
Five shots behind overnight leader Billy Horschel starting the day, Laird finished on 14 under thanks to his nine-birdie final round to earn his place in the Masters tield.
It was good week all round for the three Irish players in San Antonio with Pádraig Harrington ($155,000) carding a final round 70 thanks to an approach to two feet at the 18th to finish tied for 10th on seven under.
Shane Lowry, playing on a sponsor’s invitation, also shot 70 to finish tied for 15th on four under and earn $93,000.
The Offaly man, whose WGC-Accenture Match Play money does not count, must match the $474,295 earned by the player finishing 150th in the money list last season if he is to follow Gonzalo Fernandez Castaño and earn Special Temporary Membership of the PGA Tour this year.
Harrington didn’t get off the start he wanted, dropping a shot at the first and following that with five straight pars before he got a shot back at the 207-yard seventh, where he holed a 38 footer.
Another birdie from 15 feet at the 10th got him back into the tournament at six under but still four behind co-leaders Laird and Horschel before he finished his day with a 73-yard third that spun back to within a couple of feet of the hole.
Lowry got off to a great start, picking up three early birdies at the third, fifth and sixth before a loose drive at the 600 yard eighth killed his momentum.
Buried in the right rough, he could only advance 80 yards in the deep stuff and missed a nine footer for par.
After missing great chance from nine feet at the ninth, the Offaly man birdie the 10th from 11 feet to edge closer to the top 10 but then parred the next five holes, making great saves at the 11th and 12th before missing a birdie chance from 10 feet at the last.
A closing 70 left him on four under par but he will have left Texas with a huge confidence boost before he returns to action on another sponsor’s invitation in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in three weeks.
Keen to play in the US, Lowry is already qualified for the Open, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the US PGA, which count on both tours.
Four behind Horschel starting the day, McIlroy went out in 33 to be just a shot off the lead mixing a bogey at the fourth with birdies at the second, fifth, eighth and ninth.
He bogeyed the 10th off a poor drive and a bunkered second but got back to within a shot of the lead with a wedge to three feet setting up a birdie at the 12th.
As Horschel faltered, McIlroy found himself just a shot behind the Scot on 10 under when he got up and down brilliantly from greenside sand at the 14th.
Laird responded well, however, draining an 18 footer at the par-three 16th to give himself a two-stroke cushion over the world No 2, who was playing in the group behind.
But McIlroy is not a two-time major winner for nothing and he had an answer of his own at the 183-yard par-three - a towering cut to 13 feet and a perfect putt that closed the gap to one with Laird in the fairway trap at the 347-yard 17th.
The US-based Scot was untouchable, however, and birdied the 17th with a 15 foot putt from just off the fringe to go to the last two ahead.
McIlroy had failed to birdie the 17th after a poor drive but as he sized up a possible eagle chance following a 349-yard corker down the par-five 18th, Laird hit a wedge to 15 feet in the group in front and holed the putt.
Barring an albatross, McIlroy was playing for second at this stage and closed with a 250-yard iron shot to 50 feet, narrowly missing for eagle.
As for the new sponsorship deal with Omega, McIlroy joins the likes of Michael Phelps, Greg Norman, Nicole Kidman, George Clooney, Sergio Garcia and Stacy Lewis as a “brand ambassador.”
While no details of the deal were made public, McIlroy’s management company told AP that he would not be required to wear the Omega logo on his clothing.
“I think it’s a great deal for me,” McIlroy said. “I’ve sort of tried to adopt the strategy that I don’t want a lot of sponsors, but there are a few very big global brands that can reach out to different parts of the world. It’s a great fit.”
McIlroy had a deal with luxury watchmakers Audemars Piguet, brokered by his former agent Chubby Chandler, until the end of last year.
Following his multi-million dollar move to Nike in January, McIlroy joined Bose as a brand ambassador in February.
His decision to take on the Omega deal is part of the Rory-brand initiative designed to make his a household name all over the world.
It also made for an easy quote following his Ryder Cup scare last year, when he got his tee time wrong by an hour because of the Central Time zone and needed a lift from a local police offier to make it to the course on time.
According to an agency report on the Omega deal, McIlroy joked: “I guess I won’t be late now.”