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Rory McIlroy's gracious defeat at the Honda Classic reminds us why the game needs him

Rory McIlroy
(Stuart Franklin / Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy looks on the 18th hole during a playoff in the final round of The Honda Classic.

They can't all be Rory McIlroy. Not that you'd want them to be, but there's something to be said for making eye contact with fans, answering press-conference questions with a soupçon of candor, acknowledging your playing partners' good shots, remembering those who sign your checks, playing with style. Plus, he's a good loser. Our Rory.

McIlroy has been traveling the world, flying solo often, since he was a boy in Northern Ireland, and he's learned more about life and people and himself at age 24 than some people know at 42. You can talk to him about air pollution in China and the unrest in Belfast. He and his fiancée, professional tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, have been to more countries than Anthony Bourdain. When you've seen the slums of Mumbai and smelled the foul water of Haiti, it puts Sunday-afternoon golf pressure in perspective. Was his closing 74, in which he frittered away a 54-hole, two-shot lead, really such an awful thing? Well, compared to what?

They say every shot makes somebody happy, and McIlroy's Sunday playing partner, Russell Henley, was given the gift of multiple chances during the Honda finale. He closed with a 72, two over par on a course (the Champion course at PGA National, a Jack Nicklaus enterprise) with more water than those old Roy Firestone interviews. That less-than-ordinary round was just good enough to get him into a playoff with McIlroy, Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer. Henley won with a birdie on the first playoff hole. Enjoy Masters Saturday, kid. He has wisely chosen to turn 25 that day.

What a difference 13 years makes. These days Tiger Woods looks like the oldest 38-year-old golfer since Seve Ballesteros. If Tiger watched Honda's final two hours (a mesmerizing horror show), he most likely took it in from his nearby Jupiter Island mansion. He could not possibly relate. In his 1997-2008 prime, Sundays were life and death for him, and everybody knew it. He closed like Willy Loman in his prime.

What McIlroy did on Sunday should only give you more appreciation for Woods's step-on-their-necks way.

Woods still wears his Sunday red but no longer the hard-ass scowl, and he walked off 13 holes into his final round, citing spasms in his lower back. His card was in spasms too, with four bogeys and a double. When he finally wins his 15th major, and he surely will, you wonder if he'll respond with feelings of joy or relief. Not that we'll ever know. Had Woods repeated his Saturday 65 on Sunday, he would have won by two. Back in the day (one of his top 10 phrases) he bunched rounds and went from strength to strength. Despite five wins in 2013, despite still being the best player in the game, he just doesn't do that as reliably anymore.

"It's the same feeling I had at Barclays," Woods said on Sunday, describing his back pain. The Barclays episode came last August at a tournament in the Garden State, and the culprit then, he said, was a bad hotel bed. Last week was a home game, but backs are funny things, and not in a ha-ha way. His playing partner, Luke Guthrie, said he noticed Woods was bending "gingerly" on the 11th hole.

What McIlroy did on Sunday should only give you more appreciation for Woods's step-on-their-necks way. In his PGA Tour career Woods has been the 54-hole leader or co-leader 57 times and won 53 of those events. McIlroy has had four 54-hole Tour leads, and the Honda marked the first time he couldn't close. He's just starting out.

McIlroy and Woods are both Nike players. (That charming "in-the-cup" Nike spot they did last year seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?) Both are only children who had doting parents and are in relationships with world-class athletes. But McIlroy and Woods could not be more different. Woods's stated purpose is to try to break Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships. McIlroy is simply trying to be the best golfer he can be. Big difference. Grace, as in the Nicklaus example, is part of his equation.

Defending his title at last year's Honda, McIlroy walked off in the midst of hacking up the ninth hole of his second round. Trying to come up with an explanation for his poor play, he went for a toothache. (Not graceful.) Several hours after the tournament was over, he told a reporter that walking off the course "was not the right thing to do." Professional athletes are not programmed to say those words, or to reverse themselves, but he did both. Fast-forward 12 calendar flips, and Honda '14 looked like it could be a classic redemption story. Oh, well.

"You know, even if I had of won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved in a way," said McIlroy.

Although he won in Australia in December, McIlroy hasn't triumphed on Tour in 18 months. He plays the world. His warmup on Sunday was beautiful. His speed through the ball was breathtaking. He didn't look tight on the course, but after rounds of 63, 66 and 69, the shots were not there. In defeat, with the cameras rolling, he said, "You know, even if I had of won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved in a way." You cannot imagine Woods even thinking those words.

As for Henley, attention must be paid. He's a winner twice now on the PGA Tour in just 36 starts. He played a most delicate shot for a chip-in birdie on number 14, which got him to 10 under and into a tie with McIlroy. As the Georgia grad went to take his ball out of the hole, McIlroy gave him a modest pro-to-pro nod. It was about their only exchange all day. McIlroy, like Woods and Nicklaus and many other thoroughbreds, talks to his caddie when he's in the hunt, and that's about it. All through their five-hour ordeal Henley looked like he was watching and learning, watching and learning from his contemporary. Taking three fewer strokes over 19 holes on a Sunday on a tough golf course against McIlroy will serve Henley well for the rest of his career.

McIlroy almost had a let-the-legend-grow moment. Trailing by one on the 72nd hole, he hit a 5-wood from 245 yards, over water, leaving himself a 12-foot eagle putt to win. But as a wise man said, good shots must come in groups of two, and the putt was misread and never had a chance. Still, what a shot. "I visualized the shot, I trusted it, I believed in it," McIlroy said, describing his preshot routine. He almost pumped his fist when he saw how close it was, but he refrained. You could understand his exuberance. It was a cut shot. He didn't always have a 236-yard, 5-wood cut shot.

As he made his way through the warm South Florida dusk on Sunday, he did not seem devastated. His fiancée was on his arm, and he had a Monday tee time at Seminole, the great Donald Ross course down the street from his home. Part of his appeal is that he remembers his working-class childhood and the sacrifices his parents made, the poverty he has seen during his travels, the luxury his golf skill has brought him.

"I picked up a check for a half a million dollars this week," McIlroy said before heading off the sprawling PGA National campus. "So it's hard to say it's been that bad of a week."

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