The plaudits keep on piling up for Rory McIlroy following his phenomenal PGA Tour debut in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson. But it appears that the only person who was unsurprised by his run to the quarter-finals was the young gun himself.
Misty eyed with disappointment following his defeat by a ruthlessly efficient Geoff Ogilvy, McIlroy will have seen from the Australian’s stiletto-sharp short game that there are still a few steps to be climbed before he can hope to challenge Tiger Woods for world supremacy.
Yet given his progress in the professional ranks over the last 17 months, it appears to be only a matter of time before he reaches those heady heights and no-one is more aware of that than the shaggy-haired 19-year-old.
“I guess I showed that I can compete with the best players in the world,” he said after forcing Ogilvy to make eight birdies, including three in a row from the 15th, to beat him 2 and 1. “But to be honest, I already knew that myself. To hang in there and force Geoff to finish with three birdies to beat me is something to take away from the week. But I think I will look back at the the match against Hunter Mahan as the highlight because I birdied the last two holes to win.”
McIlroy’s first joust with the big boys on an American stage ended in defeat because he made three mistakes against an Australian assassin who wielded his putter with the precision of a surgeon. Indeed, the quality of the Irishman’s play left the 2006 US Open champion almost lost for superlatives.
“(My caddie) Alastair (Squirrel Matheson) said in the car on the way back, if you want to be second best in the world you’re going to have to be better than him,” said Ogilvy, who had lost just two of 18 Accenture Match Play encounters in four years before he took on England’s Paul Casey in last night’s 36-hole final.
“He’s by far the best young player I’ve ever played with. He hits the ball well, chips and putts well and his demeanour is fantastic. All the hype is fair because he’s the real deal.”
Ernie Els believes McIlroy will become the next world number one and Casey confessed that McIlroy’s god-given talent is so impressive that it makes him green with envy.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” Casey said with a grin. “And I’m just very jealous of him.”
But it was Ogilvy’s glowing endorsement, not just of McIlroy’s technical skill but of his composure down the stretch, that ended any possible debate over just how good a player this young man can become.
“He didn’t surprise me early in the match because there’s plenty of young guys who can kind of smash it, hit it good and do all of that,” Ogilvy said. “Yet it was impressive the more Rory needed to hit good shots the more he did. He hit some great shots – I mean, 16 and 17, I had to birdie them both and that’s ridiculous. Those are pretty tough holes and no one has been doing stuff like that out there this week.
“At 19, I can’t even imagine doing the things that he is doing. I was still playing state amateur championships and throwing clubs all over the place. So he’s very impressive.”
Asked if McIlroy had been given a taste of the rarified atmosphere at the summit of world golf, as well as a short game lesson, Ogilvy said: “Well, yeah, sure. I have a reasonable short game but Tiger’s is a lot better. So it’s good that he can see from players like me where he needs to get to. At 19, he’s a very long way advanced on most people. I mean, Sergio at 19 was great but Rory looks like he can be more consistent.
“Sergio was stunning when he wanted to play well but Rory looks like he can play well every week. Sergio developed it later on, but Rory has got it now.”
But how would McIlroy stack up against Woods, for instance?
“Technically, he’s fantastic,” Ogilvy said. “They’ve got a really similar game actually. He hits the ball really hard with his short irons, like Tiger used do when he was young. Tiger used do that and he took a long time … if he could do anything, it’d be to hit it softer with his irons but everybody hits it hard when they are young.”
McIlroy is taking it all in his stride and while he’ll be back to 16th in the world today, he’s not getting ahead of himself as he prepares to play this week’s Honda Classic at West Palm Beach in Florida before heading down the coast to Miami for the WGC-CA Championship and a possible showdown with Woods.
“It would be great to get that accolade one day but I am just trying to play my golf, keep improving and see where it gets me,” he said of a possible ascent to world number one. “I am not trying to set any major goals like that as Tiger is Tiger and even after the operation he is going to come back great.
“He has been the best in the world for the last 10 years and I see no reason why he won’t be for another few years. I just want to try and get in the top 10 in the world and see how it goes from there.”