Rory McIlroy created another piece of golfing history in far-flung China on Sunday when he finished fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions to leapfrog Lee Westwood and become the first Irishman to reach No 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
As Graeme McDowell (67) recovered from two rounds in the 80’s at Valderrama last weekend to finish four shots behind winner Martin Kaymer in third place on 16 under (31 shots better than a week ago), McIlroy birdied the 15th, 16th and 18th for a 69 to close the gap on world No 1 Luke Donald.
Had he not two-putted for birdie at the par-five 18th, McIlroy would have finished in a four-way tie for sixth and remained behind Westwood in the rankings.
But Westwood, who was playing alongside his former stablemates McIlroy and McDowell in Shanghai, could only manage a 74 and finished a disappointing 13th.
McIlroy became world No 4 when he captured the US Open in June and just a week later he matched Padraig Harrington’s feat of reaching No 3, despite taking the week off.
Reaching No 1 is the goal now though that might not be so easy given Donald’s healthy lead and the stunning talent of German Kaymer, who birdied nine of his final 12 holes to close with a nine under 63 and win his first World Golf Championship by three shots from long-time leader Fredrik Jacobson.
“I’m not desperate, but it’s definitely a goal that I’ve set for myself,” McIlroy said of the No 1 ranking earlier this season. “I feel as if it’s very attainable. It might not be this year, but definitely into next year, I can give myself a very good platform to kick off the season next year if I end the season well.”
Four shots behind Jacobson starting the final round, McIlroy was disappointed not to make more of a run at the title after starting with a couple of birdies.
But he simply couldn’t convert his chances on the front nine as he strung together seven straight pars to turn in 34 and then dropped shots at the 11th and 14th when pushing hard.
“I feel like I played very well, kept my standard up all the way through,” said the 22-year old before heading off on a two-week break with his girlfriend, the female tennis No 1 Caroline Wozniacki. “I obviously feel as if I could have shot lower out there today. I’m driving the ball as well as I have but didn’t hole the putts when I needed to and that was pretty disappointing.”
Since he finished 64th in the US PGA in August, McIlroy has finished third, third, second, second, first and fourth in his last six tournaments and hopes to come back strong for the end of the season.
“Two weeks off which I’m really going to enjoy because I’ve been on the road for the last six weeks,” McIlroy said. “So two weeks off will be nice, and then back and play World Cup, Hong Kong and Dubai.
“Not really what I was looking for today but finished the quite off well. I would have had to do something very special to keep up with Martin today. A little disappointed but looking forward to my two weeks off.”
He added: “Mentally I feel fine. Obviously I’m looking forward to these two weeks off, but I feel like this little stretch has been very good.”
McIlroy cut Donald’s lead at the top of the Race to Dubai to €1,131,512. But he fell one place to third behind Kaymer, who picked up €842,218 for his HSBC Champions win to trail the world No 1 by €1,026,130 in the battle for the European money title.
McDowell equalled his best performance of the season - he was third in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January and last month’s Alfred Dunhill Links - picking up €301,795 to move up from 25th to 13th in the Race to Dubai standings.
“Much more the kind of golf I expect from myself. Great to bounce back from probably one of the worst weekends of my career,” McDowell said after a second successive 67 left him four behind the winner on 16 under.
“I’ve been very happy with the way I’ve played. And especially the way I putted. I putted horrifically last week and putted much, much more solid this week.”
Joking, McDowell said: “I mean, if Martin Kaymer had not skipped the last couple of holes, we might all have had a chance. He’s an unbelievable frontrunner; when he gets a sniff of a win - he’s pretty prolific and very clinical when it comes to finishing. You know, hats off to him. He’s a classy player and he was impossible to catch out there today.”
After finishing dead last of those who made the cut in the Andalucia Masters after weekend rounds of 81 and 82, McDowell is now looking forward to the end of the season with a lot more enthusiasm.
“Last weekend was just a blip in the radar,” he said. “That’s what Valderrama can do to you, and I still love the golf course and I’ll still be back. But it was an embarrassment, yes, and it was great to bounce back the way I did.
“This is a nice spark that I need going into these next five weeks. Midway through my Sunday round at Valderrama, I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect of another six weeks out there.”
McDowell is now hoping to turn a poor season into a great one. Set for the Barclays Singapore Open, the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, the Mission Hills World Cup (with McIlroy), the Nedbank Golf Challenge and the Dubai World Championship before resting up for the winter, he said: “This will give me a bit of MoJo hopefully going into next week, and I’ve got a lot of great golf ahead of me and just very happy with my general play this week. So you know, bring on Singapore.
“We play for probably close to a third of our season from a monetary point of view in this seven weeks, and you can certainly take a very average season and turn it into a good one. So that’s what I’m trying to
Open champion Darren Clarke recovered from opening rounds of 73 and 76 with weekend rounds of 67 and 69 to bring his recent poor spell to an end and finish tied 38th on three under.
WGC debutant Michael Hoey was 62nd on four over after rounds of 76, 70, 74 and 72. But the good news is that he remained in the top five who will qualify automatically from the European Points List for next year’s Ryder Cup.
Kaymer and Sergio Garcia lead the way from a trio of Ulstermen - McIlroy, Hoey and McDowell.