Back in the Playoffs, back on top: Things are looking up for McIlroy

September 03, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

NORTON, Mass. -- It's a bit early in the game to say the torch was permanently passed to a new generation of golfers Monday at TPC Boston. But the sounds of Time's winged chariot -- and the footsteps of Rory McIlroy -- hurrying near Tiger Woods just got a lot louder after the Deutsche Bank Championship.


A year ago this week, McIlroy was sitting in a hotel room in the Netherlands after finishing tied for third in Switzerland at the Omega European Masters. He was ranked No. 4 in the official World Golf Ranking and was watching the finish of the 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship while getting ready to prepare for the KLM Dutch Open.

"I watched Webb win here, actually," McIlroy said on Monday night, moments after his own one-stroke victory over Louis Oosthuizen at the TPC Boston. "And I was watching on TV, and yeah, probably did say to myself, 'I want to be part of that next year again.'"

Well, he's more than part of it again. He's starring in it. With his third victory of the year, McIlroy has moved to the top of the FedExCup point standings going into week three of the Playoffs, has solidified his position as the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world, is the frontrunner in the PGA TOUR Player of the Year race and has validated the decision he made last year to change management companies and rejoin the PGA TOUR.

Not a bad week at all for the 23-year-old star from Northern Ireland who seems to be maturing as a player with each passing week.

Take the way McIlroy approached the final round of the Deutsche Bank, on a hot day in front of a vocal and very large -- and largely partisan -- gallery of pro-Woods fans who were trying mightily to root the resurgent Woods on to his fourth win of the year.

McIlroy was three strokes behind Louis Oosthuizen, and three strokes ahead of Woods, when the day began. He narrowed the margin to two strokes with a birdie at the second hole, then to one stroke with another birdie after a 6-iron into the 201-yard third that was a mile high and hunting the pin from the moment he hit it.

Walking through the tunnel of trees from the third green to the tee at the driveable, par-4 fourth hole, with the cacophony of noise reverberating like the sounds in a high school corridor during class change, McIlroy heard his own name chanted along with Woods's and a chorus of "Ooooos" for Oosthuizen.

As McIlroy waited to hit his tee shot on the tee at the 304-yard hole, Woods holed a 10-foot birdie putt up ahead and a roar from the green rolled like a wave on the wind back to the tee. A leather-lunged fan near the ropes in front of the tee welcomed McIlroy to a Boston sporting event: "He's comin' for you, Rory!" the guy bellowed. "He's comin' for you."

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Here are the top five players following the Deutsche Bank Championship:
1 Rory McIlroy
2 Nick Watney
3 Tiger Woods
4 Brandt Snedeker
5 Louis Oosthuizen

McIlroy never changed expression. He wasn't impervious to whatever pressure was building in that corner of the golf course. He was applying it. He birdied the fourth hole from the greenside bunker and, after he made a very good bogey to Oosthuizen's double at the fifth, he stuck a 9-iron next to the flag from 154 yards and birdied the sixth to get to 19 under, one clear of the South African star. He birdied the eighth to move two strokes ahead, making up five strokes in nine holes, and he never gave it back.

"He's not World No. 1 for nothing," said Oosthuizen, who had joked earlier that his 1-over front nine "felt like I shot a 47" compared to the 29 he shot the day before. "He's a great young talent. A lot of majors left for him to win. You know, he's such a cool kid, or cool guy, on the course."

Let's remember that Oosthuizen, who won the 2010 British Open and finished second at The Masters this year, is all of 29 years old. Along with McIlroy, he's part of the new wave on TOUR that includes, but is not limited to 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, this year's Masters champion Bubba Watson, Simpson, who won this year's U.S. Open, PLAYERS champion Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner and others.

All are measured against the standards set by Woods, who has won 74 times in 17 years on TOUR. Fourteen of the victories are major championships. He is still just 36 years old, and as his round of 66 on Monday and tie for third just two strokes behind McIlroy illustrated, he's still very dangerous and more than capable.

The kids are alright, too. McIlroy, with his two majors at age 23, has moved to the top. He has won five times on the PGA TOUR, four times on the European Tour and once in the FedExCup Playoffs. He is devoid of hubris, and does not try to compare his accomplishments to those of Woods.

But he does want more. And soon. Three this year ties him with Woods. Three, he said, is a great number.

"I'd like to make it four or five, obviously, after the FedExCup," he said. The reason he can say it with confidence is that he has learned how to win and how to handle winning.

"Carrying myself forward and not dwelling on what's happened, just moving forward, just trying to win another golf tournament, trying to put myself in position," he said.

All that, plus the talent, the sense of moment and ability to continue learning are what make McIlroy a threat to be great. He is unfazed by success and ready for more. And when the time comes to pass the torch, he is likely to be the one ready to take it.