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Rory McIlroy again fizzles in the clutch

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Rory McIlroy again fizzles in the clutch

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Rory McIlroy a shot at redemption and the No. 1 spot again at the Honda Classic

So the column was all set: Rory, Rory, Rory. … And in conclusion, Rory.

Who wouldn't be slobbering over Rory McIlroy's golf game and career arc? Not only did the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland with the Peter Brady haircut drop some sort of young Jedi/apprentice-slays-master job on former friend/current rival Lee Westwood in the semifinals of the Accenture Match Play in Arizona on Sunday, he was one match away from becoming No. 1 in the world rankings.

Numero Uno and a record U.S. Open win before age 23? Holy Tiger Woods, Batman.

We're talking tall cotton. The comparisons to other prodigies – Jack, Seve, the Sunday red shirt guy – only would strengthen with such a feat.

McIlroy's golf swing already has drawn more praise than Meryl Streep at the Oscars. And by knocking off Westwood in the Sunday morning match, he showed a bit of testosterone, too. After all, Lee is the guy who noted publicly after Rory's Sunday Masters meltdown that "he's got a pull hook in the bag under pressure", and dismissed Rory's Saturday night U.S. Open lead by sniffing, "He's had leads before."

After falling 3-down to Westwood in the first four holes on Sunday morning, it appeared McIlroy would be given a noogie by a putative "big brother" figure from the European golf scene. But then li'l Rors says so on his Titleist hat, "RORS" – bowed up. He made seven birdies in a 10-hole stretch, rattled Westwood and grew some hair on his chest. Bye bye, Lee.

There were only two things left on Rory's to-do list: One was to defeat major-less Hunter Mahan in the final, who was famously seen in match play chili-dipping a chip in the Ryder Cup-clinching match loss to Graeme McDowell in Ireland in 2010.

The other task was a little more symbolic. He needed to establish in the minds of golf fans, pundits and his fellow players that Rory McIlroy, indeed, has a thirst for blood; that Rory McIlroy is a stone-cold killer.

The problem with being a prodigy is that people like me will hold you to prodigy standards. That means with McIlroy – where there already is so much to like – we want it all. We want him to play beautifully, to captivate us on Sundays, to achieve greatness.

And if there's anything about Rory that needs to be fleshed out at this point in his career, it's his taste for flesh. In 36 career PGA Tour starts entering Match Play, McIlroy had two wins. Granted, the two were spectacular – the constellation of brilliance at Congressional, and the Sunday 62 at Quail Hollow in 2010 – but still … wouldn't it be fun to see a few more W's?

[ Related: Hunter Mahan makes a statement with his Match Play victory ]

The list of PGA Tour wins before the age of 23, naturally, starts with Tiger, who amassed seven of them. Sergio Garcia scored three victories. So McIlroy, by defeating Mahan, would tie Garcia and still have until May – his 23rd birthday – to notch one or two more. Heck, they even play a tournament in April in Augusta that might qualify as a potential victory circle stop for Rory.

There have been some nagging thoughts about McIlroy's killer instinct. After he imploded at the 2011 Masters, he handled the fallout graciously, including comedic, perspective-laden tweets, and won nothing but admiration. The very next week, however, McIlroy took a 36-hole lead in Malaysia but failed to close the deal. Again, he tweeted out exclamation point-laden congrats to Matteo Manassero.

There's something to be said for sportsmanship, but there also is something to be said for being a sore loser. Sore losers who have great talent usually produce burning motivation and tremendous future performances.

One could argue Rory's romp at Congressional sated that need. Fair enough, but it's a new year. It's time for new accomplishments. That a win over Mahan would mean McIlroy would vault Luke Donald for the No. 1 ranking added whipped cream, nuts and a maraschino to a potential Sunday sundae of goodness.

So how to explain McIlroy's seventh and eighth holes on Sunday, when he made double bogey from the middle of the fairway and then couldn't take advantage of a Mahan three-putt and made bogey? Those two lost holes were the difference.

One easily could surmise that the thoughts of attaining the No. 1 ranking made Rory wobble on the doorstep. He got rattled, perhaps. This does not speak well for a player we want to kick down doors, not gently knock on them.

[ Related: Lee Westwood's tee shot lands inside a fan's sweater ]

In losing, McIlroy admitted afterward that his blood match win against Westwood in the morning maybe took too much out of him, that he had trouble psyching up for the afternoon match with Mahan. While admirable in its frankness, the statement raised another red flag. Can the kid finish the job on a consistent basis?

That's all we're asking. To whom much is given, Rors, much is expected. The golf gods have blessed you, you've done the work to get this far, now it's time to start crushing souls.

Scorecard of the week

Hunter Mahan d. Rory McIlroy, 2 and 1, WGC Accenture Match Play, Dove Mountain GC, Marana, Ariz.

Oh, wait. I just wrote an entire column lead and didn't praise the winner. Rory McIlroy's golf swing will do that to you.

Hunter Mahan, come on down!

Mahan was the sleeper story of the week. The first couple of days at Dove Mountain focused on Tiger Woods failing to get out of the second round, or No. 64-seeded Ernie Els toppling top-seeded Luke Donald. After that, focus shifted to the impending Lee-Rory smackdown. Hunter Mahan? Scant attention was paid to the PING-hatted, shades-sporting, goatee-wearing guy who had the reputation of a majors-free ball-striker who never will rock your world around the greens. In fact, NBC chose to roll film of Mahan's Chili Dip Heard 'Round the World from Celtic Manor just as he was set to chip from off the green in Sunday's final round.

Yet look at Mahan. Not only did he suffocate McIlroy by refusing to make bogey on the back nine, he notched his second World Golf Championship win – to go with Doral last year – and made Johnny Miller, for one, say the victory could springboard him into becoming America's best player. (Somewhere in San Diego, Phil Mickelson had a minion FedEx Miller a tape of his Sunday round at Pebble Beach.)

[ Related: Hunter Mahan's 10 rules for finishing a great round ]

Oh, did we forget to mention that Mahan led all Americans in points at the 2008 Ryder Cup win at Valhalla? That's right. Mr. Chili Dip at Celtic Manor is actually Mr. Ryder Cup Match Play Hero in disguise.

Mahan is now No. 9 in the world rankings, and was gracious about McIlroy afterward, saying Rory is "the best player in the world right now, for sure." (Somewhere in Chicago, Luke Donald had a minion fax the Official World Golf Rankings to Mahan.)

Mahan showed a fight, a battle that was impressive. When McIlroy closed from 4-down to 2-down, Mahan never buckled, even when Johnny Miller suggested on-air: "I gotta believe Hunter's knees are gonna start a-knockin.' " Nope. Birdies on Nos. 10, 11, 13 and 15 made sure the only knockin' Mahan was going to do was on walls in his soon-to-be-finished 19,000-square foot mansion in Texas he is building with his former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader wife. How do you like 'dem apples?

Credit to Mahan for saying afterward that "deep down, you want to postpone the crowning of the No. 1 player in the world." That's the spirit, Hunter. A little saltiness goes a long way.

Broadcast moment of the week

"There's an envy Lee Westwood would have for the skills of McIlroy. … He must look at him and say: Good gracious, how did the golf gods give him so much ability?" – Brandel Chamblee, The Golf Channel, assessing McIlroy's semifinal win over Westwood.

That about gets to the heart of it, Brandel, and we thank you for it.

Since the Oscars were held last night, let's put it in cinematic terms and remind everyone that the storyline of "Amadeus" – the 1984 winner for Best Picture – was that the less-accomplished composer Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham, ached with jealousy over the otherworldly gifts of Mozart, played by Tom Hulce.

Am I saying that Chamblee nailed it to the point where Westwood is Salieri and McIlroy is Mozart? Certainly, that would be overstatement.

Or would it?

Westwood must have been devastated to lose to a fellow Euro, 16 years his junior and already up on him in major championships, 1-zip. The two shared a manager, the omnipresent English handler Chubby Chandler, until McIlroy abruptly left Chandler's camp last year without much explanation. Westwood seemed jilted, and tweeted, "Bizarre decision."

Along with the aforementioned snipes at McIlroy earlier in the column, you could build a case Westwood has a Rory Problem. After Rory beat him, the problem worsened. The young star shone brighter. Westwood blew a 3-up lead. And by the end, Westwood was in the wheelchair at the asylum, telling all golf fans, "I am the patron saint of mediocrity!"

Well, not really. I mean, he's not totally Salieri to McIlroy's Mozart. Just sort of.

Mulligan of the week

Can we get through a column without dwelling on the travails of Tiger Woods? Of course not.

Tiger has won the Match Play three times, and match play is the format in which Tiger forged his legend as a youngster, winning six consecutive USGA championships – three U.S. Juniors, three U.S. Amateurs – with those putts and comebacks that carved out hearts.

So if anything were to erase the memories of Bob Rock at Abu Dhabi or Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach, it would be a good old-fashioned, 2-down at the turn Tiger Match Play Charge.

And in his first-round win over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, we had signs of a pulse. Two-down early, and one-down after 14, Tiger made back-to-back birdies on 15 and 16 to go 1-up, then made a pressure-packed 8-footer to seal the match on 18.

Into the second round he went, against Nick Watney, who was in junior high gym class when Tiger was hugging Earl behind the 18th green at Augusta in 1997. Surely, Watney would fade. And sure enough, after holding a 2-up lead through 14, Watney suddenly faced a charging El Tigre. Tiger birdied 16 to make it 1-down. And on 18, needing a birdie, Tiger poured a fairway iron to 5 feet. Boom. The old magic was stirring.

Except it wasn't.

Stunningly – or maybe not? – Tiger missed the 5-footer. Watney won. Add a layer of scar tissue to Tiger's three-tourney thick layer of pain in 2012.

[ Related: Tiger Woods crashes out of match play in second round ]

We can talk Sean Foley swing changes all we want, but the plain fact is, Tiger Woods 2.0 is just a different dude on the greens. That decade-long run of making every putt ever is over, and Tiger has entered the real world. He missed six putts inside 10 feet against Watney. Wow.

But for the sake of drama, and for the sake of what could have been a Sweet 16 match against Westwood, let's go back out to that 18th green, put that Nike golf ball 5 feet from the cup and … give that Tiger a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

Like a high school kid who hit the gym over the summer, transforming from 98-pound weakling into buffed-out big man on campus, the Honda Classic is all grown up.

For years the forgotten stop in Florida compared to Bay Hill and Doral, the Honda this year got big quickly when it was announced Rory and Lee would play. Who knew it would have the added bonus of being post-Match Play Rory and Lee, meaning the practice putting green at PGA National may have to put space heaters out in case things get frosty between the two in warm-ups.

And then, Tiger said he'd come to the party.

That's right, Tiger will play the Honda Classic. This is a sentence previously as likely as "That's right, Tiger will stay an extra 30 minutes in the press room for any one-on-one interview requests."

Partially, Tiger is playing because he now lives in Jupiter Island, and the Honda is a hometown event. Also, this is partially because Tiger probably realizes what outsiders have been advising for some time – the dude needs some reps.

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