On the verge of reasserting himself as golf's next big name, Rory's swing melted away

Rory McIlroy
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McIlroy led the tournament after each of the first three rounds, but a 4-over 74 on Sunday forced him into a four-way playoff for the title.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Not yet. Not just yet, lad.

Just when it appeared that Rory McIlroy, our favorite former Boy Wonder who’s engaged to a world-class tennis star, was about to reassert himself as golf’s king of the hill, reality intervened.

Winning isn’t easy on the PGA Tour, despite what you might think after years of watching Tiger Woods make it look as simple as snapping a LEGO castle together. McIlroy and friends proved that again in a mistake-filled Honda Classic finish that ended with a four-man playoff and only one pro with his name on his bag who was able to birdie a reachable par 5.

PHOTOS: Best shots from the final round of the Honda Classic

Golf’s dirtiest little secret, we were reminded again Sunday, is that no golfer is immune to pressure.

McIlroy’s swing melted away on the final nine after he’d led the tournament wire-to-wire and seemed poised to resume his appointed role as Next Great Player and notch another victory here after a lost year in 2013.

A lot of things melted away from a lot of players.

Russell Henley, a former University of Georgia star who has the intensity and the look of a future star, won this Honda Classic when he two-putted for birdie on the first playoff hole, a par 5, and Rory, Scotsman Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer were unable to make better than pars.

It was a mildly shocking finish for McIlroy, who has squandered some good starts this year and been unable to close the door with victories. The only way to wipe out a 63-66 start at PGA National here was to close Sunday with a four-over 74 that included three birdies.

The final four who made the playoff, in fact, didn’t exactly light it up in the final round. They shot a combined score of five over par. Considering the winning score was eight under par and McIlroy was 11 under after two rounds, there is no way to view this one as anything but a serious glitch for Rory.

The thing was, McIlroy was still in control of the tournament after he bogeyed the ninth hole, where he needed two tries to escape a horrific lie in a greenside bunker that would’ve given even professional excavator Indiana Jones fits. He three-putted the 12th from long range for another bogey, scrambled for pars after losing some shots left, then dropped a 192-yard fairway-bunker shot into a lake for a double at the 16th.

He bogeyed the dangerous par-3 17th from a back bunker, then birdied the 18th to get in a playoff. The squandered shots in this round were too many to count.

McIlroy hadn’t shot higher than 69 in three days. A simple three-over 73 would’ve won it for him. But just as he’d done earlier this year in Dubai, where he opened with a 63, he closed with a 74 that did him in.

Life is a lot better than it was a year ago, when Rory slid into a yearlong funk after signing a huge endorsement deal, changing all his clubs, switching agents and moving to south Florida. Rory is not quite invincible, however, and maybe no one ever will be in the modern game again.

“You know, even if I had won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved in a way,” McIlroy admitted. “Today, 74 wasn’t good enough to get the job done. I’ve just got to pick myself up and get back into contention at Doral next week and try to get the job done there.”

Victories aren’t that easy on the PGA Tour. This Honda had McIlroy’s name on it, and it was going to be a popular win, what with golf’s two other big names, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, not around for the finish. Phil missed the cut and Tiger, after a seven-birdie round Saturday, struggled badly Sunday and withdrew with back spasms on the 13th hole.

McIlroy is the game’s next biggest marquee name. He fumbled.

“It’s very disappointing,” Rory said. “No one was really coming at me. I had my chances. It’s tough to take but I’ll sleep it off tonight and get back at it.

“It’s been a decent week. It’s my third stroke-play event of the year and the third time I’ve been in contention with a chance to win. I didn’t play well enough to win today, and that was the short story of it.”

Based on pedigree, McIlroy was the obvious favorite on the closing nine, even in the playoff after he’d faltered. He’s won two majors, the 2011 US. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, and won them both by eight shots, the record for margin of victory in PGA Championship history.

He showed that pedigree on the 72nd hole when he busted a fairway wood to 12 feet for what would’ve been a winning eagle putt. He missed, however, and settled for birdie. Facing a similar second shot in the playoff, he flew it too far, into a back bunker where he had a difficult up-and-down that he couldn’t pull off.

Luckily, he’s got those two majors on the resume, otherwise some observers might be wondering why he’s having trouble in the final rounds.

He had plenty of company among those who felt like they’d given this one away.

Henley slipped back with a bogey at the 12th, then birdied the next two holes, including a chip-in at the 14th. He dumped a tee shot in to the water at 15 for a double, then gamely parred his way in.

Knox got it to 10 under par, but trying to hit out from the loose scrabble beneath a tree at the 14th, he sent a layup shot even farther right, into a lake, for a costly double.

Palmer, a Texan, looked as if he might pull it out. But he missed the 16th green long, chipped close and badly missed a par putt there. If he pars the 18th, he still wins. After laying up, his wedge shot came up short, bouncing off the lake’s retaining wall and luckily going forward into the rough. He chipped that four feet past and never hit the cup with his par attempt. That was a bogey, too.

With Tiger’s game and apparently his body ailing and Mickelson missing in action despite his pre-season assertion that this could be a career year for him, McIlroy figured to be golf’s man of this year.

It appears that Rory isn’t all the way back to where he was before all of his life changes. He is close, yes, but that’s all.

“There are a few positives to take,” he said, “but it’s going to be hard to get over because I had a great chance to win my first tournament of the season and I didn’t.”

Henley, who wears a certain indefinable intensity, is an impressive 24 years old. So is McIlroy.

Maybe, if we’re incredibly lucky, this could be the start of something big.

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