Rory McIlroy was on top of the world last night after he held off a dramatic final round charge from Tiger Woods to become Ireland’s first number one.
The pride of Holywood fired a one under 69 to win by two shots on 12 under from Tom Gillis and Woods, who eagled the last to close with a stunning eight under 62 - the lowest final round of his career - to set the target and heap the pressure on Ireland’s boy wonder.
McIlroy’s brilliant response was an incredible statement of intent from the 22-year old, who validated his status as the best player in the world by becoming the second youngest No 1 since Woods soared to the top of the world rankings 15 years ago at the age of just 21.
With the greatest player of the modern era firing two eagles and four birdies to put him under severe pressure coming down the stretch, McIlroy proved that he’s the real deal with a sensational final round performance characterised by some astounding short game skills.
Cradling the trophy, McIlroy said: “It was tough today, especially seeing Tiger make a charge and post 10 under. I knew par golf would probably be good enough today and that’s what I was trying to do.
“To shoot one under par in these conditions when you are going into the final round with a lead is just very nice, I was just glad to get the job done.
“My short game all week has been very good. It’s what you need on a tough golf course like this. You know yoga re not going to hit every green and when you do put yourself in a bit of bother, you need to get it up and down.
“I was able to do that on 15 and 17 today when I needed to make pars there. My short game felt great all week and definitely saved me a few times today.”
Asked how it felt to be world No 1, he said: “It feels great. Knowing that I needed to go out today and play solid golf not just to win this tournament but to get to No 1 in the world and to be able to do it is very satisfying.
“I haven’t quite had a chance to let it all sink in yet but it is just a great feeling being able to stand here and win a tourament and get the bonus of going to No 1. It’s great.
“It was always a dream of mine to become the world No. 1 and the best player in the world or whatever you want to call it.
“But I didn’t know that I would be able to get here this quickly. I feel this is my fifth full year on tour I think. So, yeah, it’s not like it’s just been right away. It’s taken a little bit of time, but you know, it’s fantastic to be here at the minute and hopefully I can hold onto it for a little longer.”
World number three Lee Westwood had taken the clubhouse lead on eight under just moment before Woods when he hit an eagle and seven birdies in a superb 63.
The Englishman was delighted with his putting but also couldn’t resist a smirk when asked about McIlroy’s rise to the top.
“He’s a very good player, very young, still learning,” he said, before adding with a sly grin, “got most of the shots. I think he’s got a fairly bright future.”
Asked to elaborate on what shots McIlroy might be lacking, Westwood said: “He’s got most of the them. I’m not going to talk about another player am I, when I have just shot 63.”
McIlroy was under huge pressure following those back nine charges from Woods and Westwood, but he responded brilliantly as the weather gods smiled on him and the severe winds died down as if to pay him their respects during the final two hours of play.
As Woods birdied the 17th and then holed an eight footer on the 18th for eagle and punched the air, McIlroy immediately responded to the huge roar by following a bogey at the 12th by holing an eight footer of his own for birdie at the 13th to go two clear on 12 under.
In trouble at the 14th, the Ulsterman holed a clutch four footer for par to remain two clear enting the dreaded Bear Trap stretch of holes from the 15th to the 17th that cost Padraig Harrington five shots as he crashed to a 79.
Even Jack Nicklaus feared for McIlroy, when said: “I’d rather be in Tiger’s position that Rory’s.”
But the Irish star held firm, splashing out to six feet from sand left of the 15th before draining the putt to remain two ahead.
After safely negotiating the 16th in regulation, he bunkered his tee shot at the 190-yard 17th but feathered his recovery to three and a half feet to save par before laying up at the last and securing victory with a par five.
Woods needed just 21 ranking events to climb to the top of the game at just 21 years, five months and 17 days in June 1997.
“It’s a testament to how consistent he’s been,” Woods said. “You can’t get to No. 1 in the world unless you’re consistent, and he’s won a few times here and there but he’s been very, very consistent. That’s what you have to do. “
But while McIlroy did it in his 115th official start last night, his feat was hailed by Harrington as a just reward for a kid who deserves comparison with Woods
After crashing to a 79 that left him near the back of the field on nine over, Harrington said: “It’s a fantastic achievement. He was always destined to be a great player and over the last few years he has improved a lot and tidied up his short game and his putting.
“He’s getting himself in contention and that is where you learn. Some loses along the way have toughened him up because while winning is a habit and a good habit to have, you learn a lot more about your game when you come close and sit there on a Sunday evening reflecting on a disappointment.
“The great thing about golf is that there are no age barriers. A guy in his 40s can make it to world No 1 and so can a guy in his early 20s. It’s a fantastic game, nothing to do with age.
“Is it fair to compare him with Tiger? Why not. That have achieved similar things at a similar age.”
McIlroy began the day with a two-shot lead over rookie Harris English and 43-year old journeyman Tom Gillis thanks to an impressive third round 66 in high winds.
Fearing thunderstorms and high winds, officials brought forward yesterday’s tee-times, sending players off in threeballs from both the first and 10th tees.
Their worst fears were confirmed just 70 minutes after the start when an approaching thunderstorm forced play to be suspended for one hour and 50 minutes.
Dressed all in white, McIlroy soon realised that his hoped for victory march was going to be a gritty slog as winds gusting over 25mph whipped across the course.
As players struggled in the conditions, Woods scorched to within four shots of McIlroy’s lead when he played his first 11 holes in five under par.
McIlroy had started nervously, barely hitting an iron 200 yards off the first after being distracted by a photographer.
He just narrowly failed to make birdie from 10 feet but a 10 foot par save at the second settled him down.
After failing to make birdie from 15 feet at the downwind, par-five third, McIlroy soon realised that Tiger was on the prowl
The American eagled the third from 27 feet, then birdied the par-three fifth and seventh holes from just 10 feet to close to within five of McIlroy as they crossed paths where the fourth and ninth tees converge.
US fans took huge delight in the Sunday charge by a red-shirted Woods with one bellowing “Here he comes, don’t look behind you!” in McIlroy’s face as he made his way to the tee.
Out in 31, Woods would pick up another shot at the 11th to get to within four of McIlroy.
But the Ulsterman showed huge character to move clear of the field again. After a seven-foot par save at the fifth, he drained a crucial 12 footer for another par after going into deep grass right of the seventh.
As Woods birdied the 11th to get within four shots on seven under, McIlroy birdied the eighth from nine feet to turn two clear.
Graeme McDowell fired a final round 69 to finish tied for eighth on five under and hailed his pal’s new found belief in his putting and his rise to the top of the game.
“That’s the biggest difference in Rory’s game,” McDowell said. “A couple years ago, yeah, he was probably a little question mark from inside six feet. His stroke was a little bit kind of lifty and across the line. The work he did with Dave Stockton I guess pre‑Congressional last year has made a huge amount of difference, and now he believes he’s a great putter. That was the missing link, because the rest of his game is all there.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen tee‑to‑green, period. I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger early to mid 2000s when Tiger was the man, but Rory McIlroy is the best ‑‑ he’s the best player I’ve ever seen. Like I say, as soon as he learned how to putt, he was going to be a dominating force, and you’re starting to see that now.”
Licking his lips at the thought of what the Majors might bring us this year with Woods, Westwood and Phil Mickelson all playing well, he said: “This golf season just got a lot more spicy.”