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Sunday, May 2, 2010
McIlroy's win a shot in the arm for golf

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This was a good day for golf. A very good day.

It doesn't get much better than a guy who can't rent a car nor buy a drink in the United States shooting a course-record 62 alongside a graybeard of 24 to win his first PGA Tour event.

Or a teenager halfway around the world shooting 58 for that matter.

Rory McIlory has long been destined for greatness, a kid mature beyond his years already well-schooled in the rigors of the professional game.

At 20, he has played in six major championships, and Sunday he became the youngest player since Tiger Woods in 1996 to win on the PGA Tour with a stunning victory at the Quail Hollow Championship.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy's stirring course-record 62 on Sunday at the Quail Hollow Championship helped the Northern Irishman win his first PGA Tour event.

His 10-under-par effort came after learning that Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, 18, shot 12-under-par 58 to win a Japan Tour event by 5 strokes at the Crowns tournament, his seventh title on the Japanese circuit.

The stage was not quite the same, but Ishikawa is already a huge star in his homeland and competed in last year's Presidents Cup. He has played in four major championships.

Not bad, that kind of young firepower producing on the same day.

"I'm just trying to keep up with him," joked McIlory, who is from the Northern Ireland town of Holywood. "I played that tournament [in Japan] a couple years ago. The greens are so small, they can get the greens rock hard there. It's a very impressive round.

"Every time I've played with him, he's been great, and obviously with myself winning today, as well, it looks good for the future."

Yes it does, and that is a very important point. Golf has long sought a few young players to step up and be the next generation of superstars. McIlroy's caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, a veteran bag-toter who has worked for the likes of Ernie Els, among others, cringed at the inevitable comparisons to Woods.

But he did admit Sunday's performance was special.

"The way he played the back nine," Fitzgerald said, "was magic."

McIlroy shot 30 over the closing nine at Quail Hollow Club to blow past the field, finishing 4 strokes ahead of Phil Mickelson, who did not disappoint in his first post-Masters start.

McIlroy, after making the cut on the number Friday, fired 66-62 over the weekend.

"I know I'm biased, but was that as good as I think it was?" said David Feherty, a CBS TV analyst and former European Tour player who is also from Northern Ireland. "He'll be a big star as long as he wants. … He could have birdied the last three. You're supposed to soil yourself on the last three here. Especially when you're 20. The hairs on my body are still standing up.

"Astonishing to have the guts, the courage to do it. When I was that age, I was thinking, 'How am I going to lose this thing?' He was going further and further and further ahead. And that does remind you of somebody."

The reference, of course, was to Woods, who has made a habit over the years of stepping on necks and not letting up on his way to victory.

McIlroy did that Sunday, birdieing the final three holes of the front nine, then playing the final five holes in 5 under, including a kick-in eagle at the par-5 15th. It was incredible stuff.

"He's got a lot of talent, there's no doubt about it, and he had a great day out there," said Anthony Kim, who played with McIlroy on Sunday. "That'll help his confidence. He's been having a tough year out here and now he'll be ranked in the top 10 in the world. He can play out here."

And it was funny for Kim to refer to McIlroy as "a kid." Kim, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, is all of 24. Last year at the Masters he played with McIlroy and Ishikawa and said, "That's when I really felt old."

For years, golf followers wondered who would emerge as the next great players as Woods continued to dominate. Kim and Camilo Villegas are players in their 20s with three PGA Tour victories apiece. Ishikawa is expected to be a star, even if he has yet to win outside of Asia. Also on Sunday, another player with star quality, long-hitting Alvaro Quiros, 27, of Spain, won the Spanish Open. And on the women's side, 24-year-old Ai Miyazato won for the third time this season in Lorena Ochoa's final tournament before retiring.

And then there is McIlroy, who has been on the European radar for years. Three years ago he qualified for the Open Championship at Carnoustie and tied for 42nd as an amateur. Last year, he won his first European Tour event in Dubai.

Any talk about challenging Woods or his records is way premature, but given the dark cloud that has hung over the sport for the past six months due to Woods' extramarital affairs, McIlroy's victory is a nice boost.

The only thing better might have been another victory by Mickelson, who trailed by 2 entering the final round, shot 68 and likely would have won on any other Sunday. Woods, 34, and Mickelson, 39, are expected to do battle into the summer and for several more years, but it is good to have some young guns pushing them to further greatness.

"He's a young player, but he's got the game of a veteran," said Mickelson, who was grouped with McIlroy for two rounds earlier this year at Doral. "This guy has got all the shots."

And to think just a few weeks ago, McIlroy was second-guessing his decision to join the PGA Tour and attempt to play both here and in Europe. He was considering passing on Quail Hollow and next week's Players Championship, having missed three straight cuts. Irishman Padraig Harrington noted the pressure McIlroy was feeling because "at home, no matter how he does, the focus is on him."

"I got home, took a few days off and said there's no point in feeling sorry for yourself," said McIlory, who played a couple of practice rounds last week at two of Northern Ireland's finest and most famous courses, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush.

Feeling better about himself, he was still not putting up the numbers. On Friday, he came to the par-5 seventh hole, his 16th, 2 shots off the cut line -- and made eagle.

"Most important shot of the year, to be honest," he said. "If I don't make eagle there, I'm practicing at Ponte Vedra this weekend. That could have been the turning point of my season."

Then he followed it up with a weekend of golf for the ages.

As an example of how popular McIlroy is, several players waited around to offer their congratulations, including Jim Furyk, Aaron Baddeley, Lee Westwood and Harrington.

It didn't hurt that he ended the round in style with a stirring 30-foot birdie putt that left the ground shaking.

"I suppose to cap a day off like that was probably fitting, to hole a putt like that on the last," McIlroy said. "It's one of those moments that you'll always remember. When it went in, I couldn't believe it."

Now it's off to Florida, where another big tournament awaits. But first will come a celebration, for a big victory and also a big milestone: McIlroy turns 21 on Tuesday, a strong reminder of how he can be part of golf's bright future.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.