America is ready for golf’s new crown prince and if he plays anything like he did at PGA National yesterday Rory McIlroy is set to become just the the 16th player to be ranked No 1 in the world.
Since the Official World Golf Ranking was published ahead of the 1986 Masters, 25 years ago, 15 players from nine countries have risen to the top to the pile.
It appears to be only a matter of time before Ireland hails its first No 1 but McIlroy can make it happen in Palm Beach Gardens today when he takes a two stroke lead into the final round of the Honda Classic.
Just a week ago he had a chance to go to number one when he faced Hunter Mahan in the final of the Accenture Match Play. But this is different.
“I wasn’t standing two‑up on the first tee in the finals,” he said of his lead over 22-year old Harris English and 43-year old journeyman Tom Gillis on 11 under par.
“It’s nice to have the lead going into tomorrow, no doubt. But with everything that’s predicted with the weather and the leaderboard is quite bunched, as well, someone could come out of the pack and give it a go early.”
Tiger Woods said yesterday that McIlroy has improved but still has “a lot to learn.”
But after carding a stunning, four under 66 in high winds yesterday to lead on 11 under par, McIlroy is nine ahead of the former number one and preparing to answering one final question before he is crowned as the new king.
With thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon, tee times have been moved up for the final round with players going off both tees in threeballs between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. (1330 and 1530 Irish time). Winds gusting to 25 mph are also expected and it remains to be seen if McIlroy can prove wrong those who think he’s a fair-weather player.
Given his performances since last year’s US PGA - two wins and another eight top 5’s from 11 starts - it appears likely he will pull it off.
“I definitely feel like I need to put it out of my mind tomorrow,” McIlroy said of the No 1 ranking. “I need to focus on just trying to win this golf tournament. It might be a little bit difficult. It might creep in every now and again, but if you can keep it out for the majority of the time, I think it’s the best thing to do.
“I have to just try and focus on what I’ve been trying to do all week, which is hit fairways and hit greens, really stay in the present, stay in the moment and not think about everything else that could happen, whether it be going to No. 1 or winning my first tournament. I’ve just got to go out there and try to put a good number on the board.”
Asked the reason for his magical run of form since hitting that tree root in Atlanta last August, he said: “Hard work and practice, and I think I said this at the start of the week. I feel maybe a little more focused, a little more motivated, and that’s probably the reason. I’m basically just playing golf and it seems like every time I go out there, I play the way I want to and it’s a great feeling. Hopefully I can keep it going for a while.”
The 22-year old from Holywood has been a superstar in the United States since he burst on the scene here in 2009, scorching into the quarterfinals of the Accenture Match Play outside Tucson.
The American public took him to their hearts when he imploded on the final day of the Masters last year, blowing a four-stroke lead with a closing 80.
Just 70 days later he made the quantum leap into modern American sporting lore at Congressional, when he salved the wounds of the Masters by romping to an eight stroke victory in the US Open.
Much soul-searching went into McIlroy’s dramatic turnaround that week and he now appears to have found himself as a player and added a solid putting stroke and no end of patience to his already formidable tee-to-green game.
When the boy became a man is difficult to tell but yesterday’s six-under par 66 on one of the PGA Tour’s toughest courses was arguably a watershed moment for a player who will become the youngest world No 1 since Woods if he lifts the trophy today.
“You have to learn from your mistakes, and like everyone else in this world, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve tried to learn from those the best I can,” McIlroy said last night. “Sunday at Augusta last year was a huge learning curve for me and I feel like I took a lot out of that and can put a lot of the stuff I learned there into practice going into a day like tomorrow.”
Just a stroke behind 43-year journeyman Tom Gillis and England’s Justin Rose on seven under starting the day, McIlroy got off to a flyer alongside Dicky Pride, who tried his best not to gush about his playing partner following their round but gave up and said: “”I’m holding back so much right now … What a sexy beast.”
With a 20 to 25mph wind sweeping across the water-strewn course, he got off to a flying start when he holing for birdie from 27 feet at the third, 22 feet at the fourth and 10 feet at the fifth to grab the lead on 10 under par.
The last 12 holes of his round told two tales. First came back to back bogeys a the sixth, where he drove into rough and failed to save par from 12 feet, and the seventh, where he was 62 feet from the pin but putted aggressively off the green to lose the lead to Gillis.
His response was stunning, however. After driving into the right rough at the dangerous 11th, he took on a perilous, 180-yard carry over water, hit a seven iron to the back fringe and holed a 47-foot putt for birdie. Bonus.
Then came two stunning par saves in a row that arguably set him up for one of the biggest days of his career today.
At the 13th, he hit a 30 yard bunker shot to three feet before get up and down for another crucial par at the 14th, holing an eight footer for his four.
The youngster from Northern Ireland has worked hard to make his putting as natural and free-flowing as the rest of his game - especially inside 10 feet - and while a quick look a statistics this week shows that he still has work to dp in that department, he’s a far better putter than he was 12 months ago.
The terrifying Bear Trap may decide the winner today but it should hold no fears for McIlroy.
The Ulsterman was 16 over for the three hole stretch from the 15th to the 17th for his 12 previous round. Yet he is three under there this week after following a birdie from five feet that 15th yesterday with two solid pars.
His nine iron to the 15th was one of the shots of the day but his birdie at the last, courtesy of a bunker shot to 12 feet and an sweet putt, gave him a crucial two-stroke cushion over the field.
Given the weather forecast, he is aware that someone can come charging out of the pack and set a formidable target.
Whatever happens, his close pal Graeme McDowell believes he’s destined for greatness.
“This only the beginning for this guy,” said McDowell who birdied his last two holes for a one under 69 that left him tied for tenth on four under par.
“I expect to win more majors but I KNOW Rory McIlroy will win more majors.”
Padraig Harrington struggled with his putter as he carded a two over 72 to fall back to level par.
But unlike Woods, who refused to fall over himself praising McIlroy, Harrington reckons the Northern Irishman’s march to No 1 is “phenomenal.”
“It would be an incredibly big deal, no doubt about it. I think it is an incredible achievement, regardless of his age,” Harrington said.
“No 1 in the world is very impressive. You can’t take it away from him if he gets there. I am not looking at it age wise, it’s a phenomenal achievement to get to world No 1.”
While McDowell and Harrington were full of praise, Woods refused to join the chorus of universal acclaim for McIlroy.
Asked what he thought of McIlroy and his game, the best the 14-time major winner could come up with was that the 22-year old from Holywood still had “a lot to learn.”
After carding a one-under 69 at PGA National to trail McIlroy by nine shots on two under, Woods said: “I played with him in Abu Dhabi the first two days. He’s still learning. He’s developed a lot but also he’s got a lot to learn, too.”
Asked what he could improve, McIlroy tried his best to give an honest answer but just made one realise that there’s not a lot he’s doing wrong right now.
“At the minute I feel like most aspects of my game are pretty good,” he said. “I feel like I’m striking the ball well and my short game is pretty sharp. Mentally, I feel pretty good. So at the minute, it all feels like it’s pretty much right there.”
When he’s good, he’s very, very good. When he’s bad, he’s still good.
“I feel like a better player all around. I mean, I can still hit the same shots last year as I hit now, but maybe I’m just able to hit the shots on a more consistent basis and maybe not have as many destructive shots in the bag. We sort of eliminated those. I think I was going into the last round here last year 60th or whatever, and obviously this year I have a chance to win.”
The US fans love McIlroy and shouted “Eireann go Brách” to him as he hurriedly bustled his way through the crowds thronging the corridor outside the media centre.
It promised to be just as rowdy on the course today, despite the early start.
“It was unbelievable,” McIlroy said of the fan reaction. ” Some guy asked me what shampoo I used on the 17th tee. Another guy asked me if I had any snacks in the bag; he was hungry obviously.
“It was a great atmosphere out there. I enjoy playing in front of crowds like that. I think golf could do with some more of that. I think it’s great for the fans obviously, and you know, when the players receive it the right way, I think it’s good, as well.”
McIlroy, it appears, is the right man in the right place at the right time. A No 1 to be proud of in every way. Whenever it happens.