McIlroy answers golf fans' prayers in the face of a Tiger strike

Brian Murphy
McIlroy answers golf fans' prayers in the face of a Tiger strike
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Rory McIlroy celebrates winning the Honda Classic, his third PGA Tour title

A quick tweet before we get started:

@Golfgods Thank you! Signed, All of Us Waiting for Epic Change, High Drama and Beautiful Golf.

Despite centuries-old habits of torture, pain and injustice, the lords of the royal and ancient game deserve a 21st century-style shout-out to accurately express our feelings after Sunday's golf.


So, to recap:

• The Honda Classic, usually a bug on the windshield of the PGA Tour's schedule, rolled out a major championship leaderboard with names like Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley, Rickie Fowler and two others I'm forgetting … Oh, wait: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Welcome to the party, Honda Classic.

• Tiger shot 62 on Sunday, finishing with a birdie-eagle that included one of the greatest shots of his career, a rocket to eight feet for eagle on 18. It tied his lowest Sunday score ever and put him one shot behind Rory McIlroy right as McIlroy was about to enter the Bear Trap, PGA National's dastardly stretch of the water-logged 15th, 16th and 17th holes.

• McIlroy never blinked. One week after stumbling on the doorstep of the No. 1 ranking in the world, the 22-year-old played as buffed as his new, baby fat-free physique. The mop-topped kid from Northern Ireland scrambled in Tiger-esque fashion, getting up and down four times in five holes on the back nine to save par. His routine par on 18 sealed the deal, earned him a two-shot win over Woods and Tom Gillis and made McIlroy the second-youngest player ever to reach the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings. The first-youngest is the guy who shot 62, natch.

• And Jack Nicklaus, the greatest who ever lived, sat in the NBC broadcast booth for it all. That's sort of like Babe Ruth watching from the press box while Joe DiMaggio played ball alongside Mickey Mantle.

Other than that, Sunday pretty much sucked.

First off, massive congratulations to young Rory, about as likeable a star as any in the sporting landscape today. A swing for eternity and a lilting Northern Irish accent goes a long way in the charisma department. I've been hard on the kid from the laptop, wishing him to be more of a bloodsucking vampire. That wish is born of great admiration for his potential, much of it being realized right now.

[Related: Rory McIlroy's win at Honda signals a great run could be ahead for new world No. 1]

Credit to the kid. He said he wanted to do things his way, in a manner befitting his personality. Disavowing Tiger's I-will-crush-your-soul aura, McIlroy said he can't be somebody he's not. So, a week after falling in the Match Play final to Hunter Mahan and tripping on the No. 1 ranking, he cruised home in style at PGA National, showing both a fluid putting stroke (perfect inside of 10 feet) and a frontrunner's style, shooting 1-under Sunday and noting he was following Jack's advice: Don't do anything stupid; don't lose the golf tournament with unnecessary bravado; make them come get you by making par after relentless par.

Gee, sort of sounds like that guy who always wears red on Sunday.

McIlroy's way is of learning and adjusting. Last year, the Masters meltdown – 80 on Sunday – was thought by some to be a career-breaker. Instead, he seized the very next major by the jugular and essayed a U.S. Open at Congressional for the historians to parse. Fast-forward to 2012: With a chance to become No. 1 with a win at the Match Play, he froze. One week later, without even letting the dust settle, he wins his third PGA Tour title to erase any doubts.

He's an adapter, is what he is.

And let's make sure we marinate in the fact that he ascended to this youthful throne, this Jack/Seve/Tiger-like throne, by staring down Tiger himself. The narrative was handed down from the heavens. Woods' 62 was a blast from the past, a reminder to the new kid that Tiger Woods – despite the tawdry jokes of 2009, the bum knee of 2010-11 and the brutal putter of 2012 – still has enough talent in his left pinky to shake things up. A 62 to get within one shot of the lead? This was I-drink-your-milkshake-type stuff, and a possible warning shot of things to come.

On Saturday when asked about McIlroy's possible ascension, Tiger remarked that the kid had "a lot to learn," adding almost parenthetically that all young players do. It was hardly a candy-gram of well wishes.

McIlroy's caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, said that when Tiger made eagle on 18, they heard the roar and knew it was him. That McIlroy went 1-under from that point on – including a birdie immediately thereafter, and three consecutive one-putt par saves – made for the best theatre of all.

As they say in boxing: To be the champ, you have to beat the champ. And even though Tiger hasn't won an official event since the iPad was invented, there remains the feeling McIlroy has come to make sure Woods' dream of reclaiming No. 1 remains just that. Fellow players gush about McIlroy, and Irishman Padraig Harrington made a salient observation when he noted that McIlroy arrives to the top spot with his life "in balance," that there appears a staying power to him.

In fact, there is a general feeling that the game has been waiting for this day. Though Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald have held the No. 1 spot since Tiger fell, the unspoken thought is that they were placeholders, mere seat warmers until the Next Great Thing comes along.

Sunday in south Florida, that day arrived – in grand style, too. It feels like the dawning of a new era.

[Related: Tiger Woods shoots final-round career best at Honda Classic]

Scorecard of the week

71-68-69-62 – 10-under 270, Tiger Woods, tie-second place, PGA Tour Honda Classic, PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

I ended last week's columns by saying: "The dude needs reps," and I'll stand by that today. Tiger Woods, by playing an event he doesn't usually play, by getting those extra competitive rounds in, netted a big fat fish as a result.

A Sunday 62! More than anything he's done since he piled his Escalade into a tree in November 2009, that round proves an extra gear still exists, that the horsepower still revs. Ernie Els played alongside him and said Woods didn't miss a swing, that it was "the old Tiger."

The 62 had heft. Woods reminded McIlroy that the old guy can still hit it, and he did it despite nearly climbing into the UFC Octagon with The Golf Channel's Alex Miceli early in the week for daring to ask about Woods' former coach Hank Haney's tell-all book.

Skeptics would say one 62 in a Honda Classic means about as much as a second-place finish in Tiger's value system. And the point has validity, to be sure. After all, it's easier to shoot 62 when you start the day nine shots back than it is when you're in Sunday's final twosome.

But still … Tiger shooting 62 on a Sunday means attention must be paid. The big boys go to Doral this week, and Woods will play for the third week in a row, meaning his putter may begin to feel useful. And four weeks from this Thursday a tournament begins in Augusta, Ga., meaning an internal clock goes off in Tiger not unlike the internal clock that triggers the swallows to Capistrano.

Graeme McDowell said it best: "The golf season just got a lot more spicy."

Broadcast moment of the week

"No, no, I'm not afraid of anybody. I might get beat, but I'm not afraid of them." – Jack Nicklaus, responding to Johnny Miller's question of fear on NBC's coverage of the Honda Classic.

And so Jack reminds us why he is Jack.

The Golden Bear didn't get his nickname by leaking tee shots into water hazards under pressure, folks. The Golden Bear roars! It's the other guys who are afraid of that roar.

We got a peek into each man's psyche in the exchange. Miller is hyper-focused on nerves/choking/fear, and weaves those themes into every broadcast. Nicklaus, as a player, was hyper-focused on winning, winning and winning – and weaves those themes throughout his entire career.

Where one player (Miller) sees a chance for failure, another one (Nicklaus) sees victory lane.

It was instructive to hear McIlroy tell NBC that Jack's best advice to him was to make Sunday about playing steady, about making pars when you have the lead. Woods has employed that strategy in 14 major championship victories, showing Jack's influence on the modern game is as intense and heavy as the American blues were on Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. From the elders come wisdom.

Miller, of course, put it more bluntly. When McIlroy laid up on 18 and hit a nice wedge to the fat of the green for a two-putt par, Miller remembered a young player's meltdown at Torrey Pines last month and said: "There's the anti-Kyle Stanley shot right there."

Oh! A drive-by! See? Everybody sees the world a little differently.

Mulligan of the week

Amid the haymakers thrown by the heavyweights sat Tom Gillis, 43 years old, winless in 121 PGA Tour starts and smack in the middle of the drama.

Imagine how befuddled we'd all be if Gillis outlasted those two.

Gillis shot 69 in the final group of the day, featuring a birdie on 18 that pulled him into a second-place tie with Woods. Often, winless players playing in intense final groups fade into oblivion. In fact, rookie Harris English got a bad taste of Sunday final-group medicine, shooting 77 to tumble to a tie for 18th.

So let's pay homage to Gillis, who faced the live bullets and lived to tell about it. In fact, if he could go back and re-do a pair of bogeys on Nos. 9 and 10, he might well have pulled the plug on the Rory Party.

In particular, a missed two-foot par putt on No. 9 stung. Gillis went 2-under on his last eight holes and had Miller in the NBC booth extolling his virtues repeatedly. Had he made that kick-in par putt, who knows?

For the journeyman who dared to dream, who dared try and be the third wheel to the Tiger-Rory Bash, let's go back out to that ninth green, place Gillis' golf ball two feet from the cup and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

Doral is now a World Golf Championship stop, as if it needs more drama. You've had moments as epic as Tiger-Phil smackdowns and moments as unreal as Craig Parry's hole-out on the 18th to win. The Blue Monster always provides something, and this week will be no exception: McIlroy's debut as No. 1, Tiger's post-62, third-week-in-a-row juice and the return of Phil Mickelson.

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