Tiger charges, but McIlroy was true No. 1 at Honda

March 04, 2012
Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- The hunted has now become the hunter.

It used to be that Tiger Woods raced to the lead and forced everyone else to try to catch him. Now it's Rory McIlroy who has taken that role and with it the throne that Woods used to rule from, figuratively and literally.


"He's the best player I've ever seen tee-to-green, period," said Graeme McDowell of his fellow Northern Irishman. "I didn't have a chance to play with Tiger in the early to mid 2000s when Tiger was the man, but Rory McIlroy is the best."

It showed on Sunday.

Protecting a two-shot lead at the start of the day, McIlroy never lost his spot atop the leaderboard at The Honda Classic, where his victory moved him to fourth in the FedExCup standings and first in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Not when the wind started whipping through PGA National. And not when Woods put on the kind of charge that used to make his opponents suddenly turn to mush.

The difference of course was that Woods was the one doing the chasing this time. The greatest front-runner of all time had never shot a 62 in any final round of his career and never needed to.

Even when Woods did, though, it didn't matter. Not even a roar-inducing eagle on the final hole could shake Rors. McIlroy heard the noise from five holes away and made some of his own with a birdie putt from just over 8 feet.

"It was nice to have that two-shot cushion going into the last five holes after holing that birdie putt," said McIlroy, who carded a 1-under 69 in the final round.

A couple of years ago, it might have gone differently for McIlroy.

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"He was not a standout closer two years ago, because he didn't have the putting ability," McDowell said.

You don't even have to go back that far.

At last year's Masters, McIlroy took a four-shot lead to Sunday before imploding with a final-round 80 that featured one devastating missed putt after another.

Now McIlroy seems to be getting better not incrementally but exponentially.

He has three wins worldwide in the last nine months and just once has finished outside the top 5 since the PGA Championship last August, and that was an 11-place finish in Dubai when he was sick.

Sunday, McIlroy's performance must have made Woods ill.

No matter what the one-time No. 1 player in the world did, it wasn't enough. For every birdie or eagle that Woods made, McIlroy sank one clutch par putt after another.

FedExCup standings

Rory McIlroy makes a move to No. 4 in the race for the FedExCup with his victory at PGA National. Latest standings

In all, McIlroy made five putts from outside 7 feet in the final round and for the week he tied for first in total distance of putts made. A year after playing the difficult Bear Trap -- Nos. 15, 16 and 17 -- in 6 over in the third round alone, McIlroy was a combined 3 under this year, which included three pars on Sunday.

"As soon as he learned how to putt, he was going to be a dominating force," McDowell said. "You're starting to see that now."

Said McIlroy: "That was big this week, saving par, which I managed to do today very well."

Which is exactly what Woods used to do, especially on Sundays. Woods was a closer, not a chaser. Now he knows how everyone else used to feel.

"You're not going to win every time you tee it up, but you can be consistent," Woods said of McIlroy. "You can be close and in the hunt and that's what he's done."

In truth, it's what Woods is starting to do, too, albeit slowly. But that's a story for another day because this one was all about McIlroy and his ascension to the top of the game.

"I always felt like when I played my best, I would be hard to beat," McIlroy said. "I feel like I've always been a pretty confident guy. But I think I've got a lot more belief in myself now when I'm going down the stretch. I definitely don't doubt myself as much as I used to."

Neither does anyone else.