PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy didn’t blink.
He didn’t flinch.
He wouldn’t be wobbled, staggered or even distracted in his bid to win the Honda Classic on his way to seizing the world’s No. 1 ranking. That was half the twin marvel this thrilling Sunday finish gave us at PGA National.
It was Tiger Woods making like the champ of old, finding his lost powers in a brilliant charge, and it was McIlroy refusing to get out of his way.
A terrific start to the PGA Tour season just keeps getting better.
This Sunday finish gave us the rise of a new No. 1, a 22-year-old wonder boy from Northern Ireland who looks determined to claim a new era as his own.
It also gave us the promise of the return of Tiger.
That’s one hell of a 1-2 Sunday punch.
That raises the grand possibility that the game may be racing to exhilarating new heights again.
With McIlroy’s rise, with Woods’ return, the game crackles with the prospect that the best rivalry since Jack Nicklaus met Arnold Palmer is about to be fully engaged. Rory vs. Tiger. After what we saw Sunday, it’s more than wishful thinking. It’s a formula packed with the power to jolt another new wave of interest in the game.
“I think it’s great for golf,” McIlroy said. “It creates a lot of interest, and I’d love to be able to go down the stretch like that with him there a lot more.”
If Woods is regaining lost powers, and he sure looked like it with Sunday’s 8-under-par 62, his best final round in a PGA Tour event, then his dream of breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championship triumphs is renewed. The question, though, will be whether Woods can get through McIlroy to claim his life’s ambition.
Woods sent a message this day with the way he closed, with the way he carved that clutch 5-iron from 206 yards to the foot of the 18th flagstick. The grounds quaked when Woods holed the eagle putt. Nine shots back at day’s start, he thrilled the giant galleries, improbably pulling within one shot.
Those Sunday failures at Pebble Beach, where Phil Mickelson whipped Woods in the final round, and at Abu Dhabi, where a guy named Robert Rock beat Woods head-to-head in a final-round pairing, now were distant memories.
Ernie Els, playing alongside Woods, saw a scary possibility Sunday.
“The old Tiger is back, the guy I remember, the guy I used to finish second to a lot,” Els said. “It was him again.”
The Tiger of old, though, didn’t have McIlroy to contend with.
At 22 years and 10 months, McIlroy is the second-youngest player to ascend to No. 1 in the world, second to Woods, who was 21.
“Tiger is back doing only the outrageous things Tiger can do,” Graeme Mcdowell said.
In almost the same breath, McDowell laid out the challenge for Woods.
“Rory is the best player I’ve ever seen, tee to green, period,” said McDowell, who also hails from Northern Ireland. “I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger in the mid-2000s, when Tiger was the man, but Rory McIlroy is the best player I’ve ever seen.
“Rory is about to become the world No. 1, and he’s going to win multiple, multiple majors.”
If Woods keeps getting his mojo back, McIlroy will be heavily challenged to do that.
“I felt like I was close,” Woods said. “I’ve been close to shooting this score, or scores like this. It was just a matter of time until things all fell in place.”
Woods’ balky putter looked refortified in this bogey-free round. He needed just 11 putts on the back nine. He had seven one-putts back there. He had a pair of eagles on the day.
McIlroy’s putter was just as golden. He nervelessly holed one testy par save after another to preserve his lead along the front nine.
With Woods charging, McIlroy impressed with his refusal to flinch. Notably, McIlroy was looking over an 8-foot putt for birdie back at the 13th hole when he heard the explosion Woods detonated with his eagle at the finish. McIlroy didn’t have to see a leaderboard to know what happened. He knew Woods was within a shot of him.
“I wasn’t really paying much attention until he made that eagle on 18,” McIlroy said. “I heard the huge roar. It definitely wasn’t a birdie roar.”
McIlroy confidently rammed in his birdie putt to go back up by two.
It wasn’t the first answer McIlroy had to Woods’ charge.
At the eighth green, McIlroy got his first glimpse of Sunday’s leaderboard. He took a long, hard look there. It showed Woods charging. It showed Woods sitting in a tie for fourth.
McIlroy moved over a 10-foot birdie putt there and holed it.
“When I’m firing on all cylinders, I feel like I’m hard to beat,” McIlroy said. “I still feel like I can play better than what I did this week.”
Woods is likely thinking the same thing. Bring on the Masters.