Rory McIlroy hailed his Honda Classic win as a major milestone in his career.
But what mattered to him wasn’t just that his sixth professional win catapulted him to world No 1. What really excited the 22-year-old in Palm Beach Gardens was the fact that he took the best that Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood could throw at him and still came out on top.
His goal now is not to just hold on to the No 1 ranking. That will take care of itself if he achieves his principal ambition, which is to take care of some “unfinished business” and win next month’s Masters.
Dreaming of a final day showdown with the likes of Woods and Phil Mickelson, McIlroy said: “I always had putts on the putting green when I was 10-years-old to beat Tiger Woods or to beat Phil Mickelson. But hopefully it would be great to turn that into reality at some point.
“They are the best two golfers of this generation, and obviously Tiger’s the best by a long way. It’s quite an honour just to be mentioned in the same sentence as those two guys.
“Phil has won 40 tournaments and four majors, and Tiger has won 14 and 70 Tournaments, and here is me sitting with my third PGA Tour event, so it’s a little different. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to get to the stature of those two guys.”
McIlroy was being modest about his standing in the game and he knows now that he has what it takes to earn some Masters redemption following Sunday’s tough examination.
With Woods shooting 62 and Westwood 63 to pile on the pressure, McIlroy held firm down the stretch, extending his lead to two strokes and then keeping it thanks to his short game skills.
As Jack Nicklaus said when Woods eagled the 18th: “If he can’t do this (hold on and win), he shouldn’t be No. 1. Tiger’s making him earn it.”
Twelve months ago we were wondering if he would ever have the putting game required to win at Augusta.
Now we know he has more than enough game in that department to give Woods and Mickelson more than a run for their money in the Cathedral of Pines.
Determined to erase the memories of his Masters meltdown last year, McIlroy said: “Seeing Phil do what he did at Pebble; Tiger playing the way he did today; hopefully I’m in there somewhere, getting to No. 1.
“It’s great for the game and I think everyone is excited for Augusta to roll around. Idefinitely know I am. I’m looking forward to getting back there and giving it another shot.”
World golf is in an exciting place right now with the likes of Woods, Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald all heading to Augusta with high hopes.
Like any other golf fan, McIlroy is excited by the state of the game. But having finally fulfilled his potential and soared to the top of the game, he’s determined to stay there for a long time.
His improved putting has transformed his game and his gutsy closing performance on Sunday has seen his confidence soar.
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. Idefinitely don’t doubt myself as much as I used to.
“I always felt like when I played my best, I would be hard to beat; Congressional or Quail Hollow or whatever when I play my best, I usually can get quite a lead.
“But I feel at the minute, you know, even if I don’t play my best golf, I can still challenge.
“When I’m firing on all cylinders, I feel like I’m hard to beat, but I still feel like I can play better than what I did this week. To be able to do that and still be able to win is very nice.”
He will go to Augusta confident he can close the door and win this time, erasing the memories of that back nine meltdown last year.
He said: “If I can do the exact same thing this year as I did last year for 63 holes, I’ll be doing okay. So hopefully I can do that again, and if I could get myself in that position, maybe finish it off a little better — like I did today.”
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