Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Golf [Print without images]

Sunday, March 4, 2012
Rory McIlroy now on top of the world


It's not supposed to be easy, becoming the No. 1 golfer in the world. And on Sunday at the Honda Classic, it wasn't.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy captured his sixth career victory -- and third on the PGA Tour -- at just 22 years old on Sunday at the Honda Classic.

Rory McIlroy's ascension to the top spot turned out exactly the way it's supposed to happen. In his second attempt to claim the No. 1 ranking, the Northern Irishman had to hold off a hard-charging Tiger Woods -- who shot a final-round 62 -- to do it.

So how did McIlroy become the 16th player in the history of the rankings to be top of the heap? It's all about coming through in the clutch.

Pressure packed: During mentally difficult situations, like the ones that McIlroy faced Sunday, he produced with flying colors. Down the stretch he made sand saves on Nos. 15 and 17, where a bogey from the bunker was clearly in the realm of possibility. But each time, McIlroy not only made great sand shots, he left himself relatively easy par putts so his nerves weren't wrecked when he got to the next tee. His fifth career victory, and third on the PGA Tour, will be one he remembers for a long, long time.

The whole package?: For nearly the entire time since Woods relinquished his No. 1 ranking late in 2010, the debate raged: Did the new No. 1s really deserve to be No. 1? Some questioned how the best golfer in the world had never won a major, referring to Lee Westwood or Luke Donald. Or questioned whether they got there by just being consistent, such as Donald and Martin Kaymer. Well, McIlroy seems to have all of those attributes and more. His game, by all accounts, is custom made for the biggest events, so don't be surprised if his second or even third major comes in 2012.

When par feels like birdie: On the second hole Sunday, McIlroy drained a 14-footer for par that kept the wheels firmly attached and the momentum on his side. On the par-3 seventh hole, he made a putt of similar distance for par, keeping his scorecard clean. Had he dropped a shot on either hole and given those around him a sense that he might falter, that grip on first place easily could have loosened and opened the door for others like Woods.

No mistakes early: Unlike at the 2011 Masters, where he bogeyed his opening hole, McIlroy didn't make any blunders starting off his final round. He made seven consecutive pars to begin his day and the first mark on his card was a birdie on the par-4 eighth hole.

Breathing down his neck: No disrespect to journeyman Tom Gillis, who provided an ample fight Sunday, but what many golf fans wanted -- and probably few thought would actually happen -- was Woods making McIlroy sweat. Woods started the day 9 shots behind McIlroy, but the former No. 1 didn't pack it in. After an eagle at the par-5 third hole, Woods added two more birdies on the front side for an opening nine of 31. And that's with a few birdie putts that stopped no more than a couple of putter head lengths from the cup.

Eagle, eagle: With what might be the shot of the tournament, Woods knocked his 216-yard, second shot to 8 feet on the par-5 home hole and then drained the putt to post a score of 10 under par. At the time, he was alone in second place, just a shot behind McIlroy with the Northern Irishman still facing the Bear Trap. As he walked off the green after a 62 on Sunday, Woods heard chants of "Ti-ger, Ti-ger, Ti-ger." The round should certainly help boost his confidence heading into next week's WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral.

Interestingly enough, the $501,600 paycheck Tiger will cash is the most he's made in an official event since the $330,667.00 he got for his T-4 finish at the 2011 Masters.

Another Sunday scorcher: Not only did Woods go low in Round 4, but his playing partner for the first three days, Lee Westwood, went well into red figures, too. After playing the first three rounds in 1 under, Westwood carded five birdies and an eagle en route to shooting 63. That would have set the course record prior to this week before rookie Brian Harman fired a 61 on Friday. Westwood finished fourth.

Don't forget about me: Gillis might have been teeing it up in just the 121st official start of his PGA Tour career, but the 43-year-old played like a grizzled veteran. He came out firing Sunday by making birdie on two of his first three holes, refusing to cede the limelight to his final-round playing partner McIlroy. Not until a 3-putt bogey on No. 9 did Gillis appear to stumble and show his inexperience playing in the final group on a Sunday.

English lesson: Playing in just his sixth PGA Tour event, rookie Harris English made double-bogey on No. 2, effectively ending his chances of hanging with McIlroy and contending for his first PGA Tour title. And if that didn't diminish his chances, his tee shot on the par-3 fifth hole found a watery grave, too. Don't worry about English, though, as the University of Georgia product is on many short lists of first-year players who could definitely find the winner's circle by year's end.

International flair: Since the Honda Classic moved to PGA National back in 2007, only one champion was born in the U.S. That would be Mark Wilson (2007), who won in a playoff at the Champion Course. Then in consecutive years it was Ernie Els (2008, South Africa), Y.E. Yang (2009, South Korea), Camilo Villegas (2010, Columbia) and Rory Sabbatini (2011, South Africa). That of course continued with McIlroy on Sunday.

Kevin Maguire is the senior golf editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Kevin.Maguire@espn.com.