Rory McIlroy / Getty Images
Golf fans used to marvel at the fact that, at the age of just 21, Tiger Woods took over the top spot in the world rankings. It was one of those rare feats that made you wonder if anyone would ever come close to matching the mark again.
It looks like we may have our answer by Sunday afternoon, after 22-year-old Rory McIlroy fired a 4-under 66 on Saturday, including getting up-and-down from the bunker on the 18th for birdie, to grab a two-shot lead over Harris English and Tom Gillis going into the final round of the Honda Classic. He's now just 18 holes away from becoming the second-youngest player behind Tiger Woods to be No. 1 in the world.
If it does happen at PGA National, McIlroy would be the first No. 1-ranked player with a major title since Woods held the top spot for 281 consecutive weeks. The ascent to golf's summit would be fitting considering the way he's been playing recently.
McIlroy may only have two wins in his last 10 stars, but dating back to last season, he's accumulated nine top-10 finishes in that span, an incredible feat when consider how difficult it is to remain that consistent when you're jet-setting all over the globe.
So far this week, he's kept the consistency going with some brilliant play, including a stretch of three consecutive birdies on Saturday that saw him take a two-shot lead early in the afternoon. Even though he followed it up with back-to-back bogeys on the sixth and seventh, McIlroy was able to figure things out on the back nine, going bogey-free over his final 11 holes -- including three birdies -- and giving himself a chance to sleep on the overnight lead.
This would normally be the part in the story where we'd question if "U.S. Open Rory" or "Masters Rory" would show up tomorrow (one throttled the field in the final round; the other blew a Sunday lead to pieces), but the fact of the matter is, looking at the kid's past is worthless at this point.
McIlroy has changed so much since his Masters collapse last year that comparing then to now is almost unfair. He has the swagger and the swing going, which is always a good thing. But most importantly, you can tell he has the confidence in his game to finally make the jump to No. 1.
"I feel like a better player all around," McIlroy said on Saturday. "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."
He not only has a chance to win, McIlroy has a shot to become the player we all knew he would eventually become: The best player in the sport. The golf world has been clamoring for years for a young phenom to come along and take over the top spot in the game once again.
And here McIlroy is, on the doorstep of taking the biggest step of his career. It's no wonder the fans at PGA National have been going crazy for the kid with the curly hair all week.
"Some guy asked me what shampoo I used on the 17th tee," McIlroy said. "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."
Golf could certainly use more players with McIlroy's charisma and game, and if he can somehow close things out on Sunday at PGA National, the rockstar status could hit a fevered pitch. All he has to do is walk through the door to make it happen.
- Tiger Woods
- Rory McIlroy