Mauled McIlroy talks straight: "Even if I had won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved”

Mauled McIlroy talks straight: "Even if I had won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved”
Despite his Honda Classic disappointment, Rory McIlroy knows a win is just around the corner. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Despite his Honda Classic disappointment, Rory McIlroy knows a win is just around the corner. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

In golf the only mathematics that count are the numbers at the bottom of the scorecard and when Rory McIlroy sat down to do his accounts after the final round of the Honda Classic, the credit column showed a gilt-edged five wood to 11 feet at the final hole that almost balanced out the huge overspend of the previous holes in the debit column. Almost.

In the ultimate numbers game, McIlroy’s scrappy par-five at the first extra hole of a four-way play-off that saw Russell Henley make four to see him and Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer off the premises was not enough to make it a truly profitable week.

Then he redeemed the loss with a brilliantly honest post-round interview that should be used surely put and end to any further attempts to put out those sanitised Q&A's he’s lent his name to recently.

“…but yeah,” he said after going through the shots that mangled him in the Bear Trap and in the play-off, “74 today wasn’t good enough to get the job done. You know, even if I had won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved.

Give that man a round of applause for honesty.

Leading by two strokes overnight, he was bleeding profusely even before he got swiped by the bear’s claws.

Rory McIlroy heads for the car park, press on his heels, at the Honda Classic. Picture © Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy heads for the car park, press on his heels, at the Honda Classic. Picture © Brian Keogh

While the approach to the final hole that gave him a putt for victory will ease the pain, the cracks that appeared when he was under the cosh will raise some questions, unfair as that may appear.

Having survived the first swipe with a par at the 15th, he pulled his drive into a fairway trap at the 16th and then chunked a six iron into the lake to run up a double bogey six, admitting later that he’d picked the wrong shot and pulled the wrong club.

It wasn’t his first pulled drive of the day and when a five-iron sailed left into a bunker at the 17th and he dropped another shot to go to the last needing a birdie to match clubhouse leaders Palmer (69) and Knox (71), his race looked run.

McIlroy — genius that he is — almost got away with it.

Tied for fourth and with playing partner Russell Henley also on eight under, he split the fairway and then hit a towering five wood from 245 yards to 11 feet that almost brought the house down.

What a shame he couldn’t hole the eagle putt for what would have been a win to cherish, weakly dribbling it past the edge.

Returning to to the 18th for the playoff, he was between clubs and flew into the back bunker in two, went through the green with his third, chunked his chip from the fringe and had to hole an eight footer for par.

Rory McIlroy and Honda Classic winner Russell Henley during the final round. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy and Honda Classic winner Russell Henley during the final round. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

It made no difference in the end and after Knox and Palmer had both failed to make birdie, 24-year old Henley two putted for winning four, holing a two footer for his second PGA Tour victory.

The winner could have won it in real time but hit a terrible pitch from left of the green and had to watch McIlroy putt for the title. He missed and Henley took advantage at the second opportunity, two putting for a second PGA Tour win and second Masters appearance in his home state of Georgia.

“When you go out with a two-shot lead, you have to play well and you have to go out and win the thing, and if I had of won today, I would have counted myself very lucky,” McIlroy said.  “Just got to pick myself up, get back at it and try and get myself back into contention at Doral next week and try and get the job done then.”

On a day when Tiger Woods was five over for his round with five to play when he withdrew citing back spasms, McIlroy’s hook under pressure returned at just the wrong time.

When the Ulsterman, already two over for the day, went one clear of Palmer and Russell Henley with five to play, Jack Nicklaus told TV audiences that he should look at the inexperienced names on the leaderboard and realise he was the favourite.

“When you haven’t won for a while, it’s tough,” Nicklaus said.  “This is not an easy Tour out here.  Everybody plays well and he is going to be nervous coming down the stretch.  I had a little conversation with him a couple of years ago and we talked about trying to do more than you think you can.

Rory McIlroy looked in total control early in the round. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy looked in total control early in the round. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

“When you are coming down the stretch, everybody is having the same problem he has, everybody is nervous.

“One thing Rory has got to think about is who is on the leaderboard.  When I was playing, we would have Johnny Miller on the leaderboard, or Weiskopf, or Watson, or Trevino or Arnold or Gary, all who we knew were going to finish. 

“These guys are sort of unproven – not that they’re not good players – but they are not proven.  Rory is a proven player and he should have the advantage of coming down the stretch with them.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Three clear after a birdie at the third, McIlroy bogeyed the fourth and birdied the fifth to to three ahead again but he was soon involved in a dogfight.

After being forced to hole a six footer for par after flying the sixth, he bunkered his 200-yard seven-iron at the par-three seventh and missed a 10-footer for par.

Just two ahead of Palmer and Knox on 12 under at that stage he then followed a par at the eighth with a bogey at the ninth where he found a tricky lie in sand left of the green and failed to get out the first time.

One clear of Henley and Knox with nine to play, he found himself tied for the lead for the first time when he drove into a bunker at the 12th and then three-putted from 60 feet, coming up seven feet short with his approach putt.

Bogeys by Henley at the 13th and Palmer at the 16th left him one clear again before Henley rejoined the lead by chipping in for birdie at the 14th.

McIlroy was soon clear again when Henley carved his tee shot into the water at the 181-yard 15th — the first of the three holes that make up the Bear Trap.

But the Holywood star returned the favour, chunking a 197-yard fairway bunker shot into the lake at the 16th.

He then bunkered his tee shot left at the 17th and missed an eight footer for par to go to last in fourth place, one behind clubhouse leaders Palmer (69), Russell Knox (71) and Henley.

Needing a birdie to force a possible playoff, McIlroy almost went one better with that sensational five wood to 11 feet but just failed to put a day of struggles behind him.

“I three-putted 12, and I started to hit some of those shots, obviously the second shot on 16 was what sort of killed me,” he said. “I hit a six-iron wide and instead of starting it right at the target and letting it come back into the wind, I was underneath it and came in a little heavy.

Bunkered in the play-off, Rory McIlroy drew a poor lie and couldn't get up and down. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Bunkered in the play-off, Rory McIlroy drew a poor lie and couldn't get up and down. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

“In hindsight, I probably should have hit five-iron and tried to hold it up because I could have got more on top of it and would have taken that fat shot out of it.

“I did well and obviously it was good to make it to the playoff.  I was fortunate that I was in the playoff, and I just had a bit of an awkward yardage for my second. 

“I had about ten yards shorter in than I had in regulation, and just tried to hit a cut five-wood and it just came off a little too strong.

“I counted myself very fortunate even to be in the playoff.  I didn't play well enough at all down the stretch to win this tournament.  Yeah, I mean, I felt like I was sort of in control.

“I started to try and play there was a lot of holes out there where I was just trying to play these little holdup shots and I was just losing them left.  Body was stopping and club was getting past my body.  And you know, ironic the cut shot that I needed, I hit at the last and obviously had a putt to win the tournament and didn't quite make it.

“So yeah, I mean, it was I didn't play well enough to deserve to win today.  So I just need to pick myself up and get back at it, go down to Doral and try and put myself in position to win again and see if I can do a better job. 

“Yeah, it's very disappointing.  Look, it was a perfect opportunity to win.  No one was really coming at me.  Eight under got in the playoff, so I'm just thinking, play those last few holes just solid, and 16 was what really cost me.

“I had my chances.  Even had my chance at the last and just wasn't to be.  Tough to take at the minute but I'll sleep it off tonight and get back at it.  Tomorrow is a new week and try to get myself back into contention next week at Doral and see if I can do a better job.

“I didn't have a great lie with the bunker shot [in the playoff].  So it was impossible to get any spin on it, so I was just trying to land it as close as I could to the fringe and let it trundle down, but then even there wasn't much spin on it to sort of stop it.  It was just downhill, downgrain.

“Played it the best way I could, but the lie was sort of against me on the slope and the second pitch shot, just a little bit of it was very lush sort of grass there, a little bit of grass got in between the clubface and the ball and it came out very dead.”

As for the shots that went left, he said: “I felt like I still drove the ball pretty well.  I hit quite a lot of fairways.  You know, if there was one thing, I didn't hit the ball close enough to the pin when I had my opportunities.  But yeah, as I said at the start there, I was trying to hit a lot of sort of holdup shots a little bit left to right, and they were just there's a lot of holes coming in that were lefttoright wind and I was just trying to hold them up and they got a little bit left on me. 

“It's a tough course, especially when you're in the thick of things, and you know, it's hard to make birdies coming down the stretch there.  Obviously for me, pars would have been good enough.

With his caddie, his tour manager and his fiancée in tow, Rory McIlroy heads for home. Picture © Brian Keogh

With his caddie, his tour manager and his fiancée in tow, Rory McIlroy heads for home. Picture © Brian Keogh

“Coming down the stretch, I went for it on 14.  15, 16, 17 didn't play so well, and obviously I only had one option at the last which was to try to go straight at the pin and I was able to do that.  Yeah, I just didn't hit the ball close enough today or give myself many opportunities to really distance myself from the pack.

“Look, it's a good finish, second runnerup in the season, stringing a lot of Top 10s and stuff.  So there's a few positives to take, but obviously it's going to be hard to get over because I had a great chance to win my first tournament of the season and I didn't.

“But you know, as I said, pick myself back up, try to get back into the thick of things at Doral next week and do a better job."

His finishes this year read T2, T9, T17, T2, which is highly positive for a man trying to get back to world No 1.

All that’s missing is the W, as Tiger Woods likes to say.

“It's my third strokeplay event of the year and third time I've been in contention with a chance to win.  I haven't been able to sort of walk through that door but I feel like the more times I knock on that door, I'll eventually step through it.  This week wasn't to be but hopefully I can get myself back in a similar position and try to do a better job.”