McIlroy is the new No. 1 in golf after winning the Honda Classic. He is not concerned with how long he can stay there as much as he is winning the Cadillac Championship in his last tournament before Augusta National.
“This is a World Golf Championship, and it’s my last event before the Masters,” McIlroy said. “I’d love to give myself a chance to win here again this week, and go into that three-week break with a lot of confidence.”
Woods is coming off a 62, the lowest final round of his career, hopeful that it’s the strongest sign yet that he is close to a full return to form that made him No. 1 longer than anyone.
For both, last week is nothing but a memory, albeit a happy one.
“Doesn’t count,” Woods said Wednesday before going out for a practice round on the TPC Blue Monster at Doral. “That tournament is over with, whether you missed the cut or won the tournament. It’s over. Now we’re on to a new week, a new golf course, and have to learn it and be ready by Thursday.
What remains to be seen is which moment is more meaningful going forward.
Not only was it the best score for Woods in more than two years, it was nearly nine shots better than the average score in the final round at windswept PGA National. He ended his big charge with a 5-iron that was exquisite, finishing 8 feet away for eagle.
But he still didn’t win, and hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since September 2009.
Woods is coming up on a stretch of courses he knows well. He is a three-time winner at Doral, and it’s the only tournament he regularly plays that he has never finished out of the top 10. Two weeks later is Bay Hill, where he has won a record 10 times.
And while statistics can be meaningless, especially this early in the year, Woods took note of the fact that he’s No. 1 in total driving, which is a combination of accuracy (No. 5) and distance (No. 14).
“Now it’s on to other aspects of the game,” Woods said. “You have to take up and focus on the weaknesses, make them strengths. And we’ve done that, and we still have some more weaknesses to look at and to fix.”
There appears to be little wrong with McIlroy in so many ways.
Not long after Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record 12 shots, he began to revamp his swing. McIlroy was asked what he was doing to his swing, and he said he was trying to get it closer to last summer when he shot a record score to win the U.S. Open.
Now, it’s about getting better.
The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland allowed himself a few moments Sunday night on the plane to New York, where he spent a few days with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, to soak in his achievement at going to No. 1 in the world.
And he also conceded that it was a little unnerving, a lot more satisfying, that it was Woods that challenged him at the Honda Classic. Woods’ birdie-eagle finish put him one shot off the lead, and McIlroy had six holes left. He then birdied the 13th, saved par on three of the next four holes and won by two shots.
“To be honest, I was probably thinking to myself, `Could it not just have been anyone else?”’ McIlroy said to laughter. “The way I did it Sunday, with Tiger making the charge, it was almost more satisfying to do it that way, knowing that I held up under pretty intense pressure when I needed to.
“Closing out tournaments, and knowing what you need to do at the right time, all just comes with experience,” he said. “And I feel like I’ve had a lot of experiences where I could have won tournaments and I haven’t. And it’s taking what you need from those close finishes and trying to do something a little bit better.”
McIlroy moves into the marquee grouping of this World Golf Championship, based on the world ranking. He will play the opening two rounds with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the two players at No. 1 before him.
There is talk of a potential rivalry, which is possible despite Woods and McIlroy being a generation apart. Jack Nicklaus was rivals with Arnold Palmer, who was 10 years older, and then Tom Watson, who was 10 years younger.
Rivalries aren’t always determined by head-to-head meetings as much as how often players win. That’s why Woods and Phil Mickelson established the best rivalry of their generation.
“I’m going to let other people make the comparisons,” McIlroy said. “I’m not going to try and compare myself to anyone else. I’ve never said that I want to be the next anyone. I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy, however good that turns out to be. Then, I’ll try my best to win tournaments and to win majors and to be the best player in the world.
“There’s still a long road ahead, and I feel like I can accomplish a lot more.”
Lost in this discussion is Mickelson, who returns from a two-week break after playing as well as anyone. Mickelson shot 64 in the final round to win at Pebble Beach (with Woods at his side shooting a 75), then lost in a playoff at Riviera.
Mickelson has never been No. 1, and he has no problems with McIlroy at the top. Still, he looks at a broader picture of Donald and Westwood, former PGA champion Martin Kaymer, and even Mickelson as players capable of taking over.
“We have not had somebody play to the level of Tiger, and so we have four, five, six guys that are battling for the No. 1 spot, it seems, monthly,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know where it will all settle, but certainly he’s a worthy No. 1.”