PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — On a day already freighted with significance, golf’s new king withstood an electrifying challenge from the old one, leading to the best finish in years at the Honda Classic.
Rory McIlroy scrambled his way around the Champion Course at PGA National and carded a 69 for a 12-under total to win the Honda by two and take over as golf’s new No. 1. Tiger Woods, who began the final round nine shots back, stormed into the mix with a final-round 62. He finished 10 under, in a tie for second with Tom Gillis.
“My putting has been really good, especially today,” McIlroy said. “I made a couple of big par saves early, and then made the putts I needed to.”
At 22 years, 10 months old, McIlroy becomes the 16th player to reach No. 1 and the second youngest ever to ascend to the top spot in the rankings, trailing Woods, who was 21 and six months when he became No. 1 in 1997. McIlroy is also the first Irish player to make it to the top of the rankings.
“I didn’t know that I would be able to get here this quickly,” McIlroy said.
Graeme McDowell (69, T9), McIlroy’s older countryman from Northern Ireland and a close friend, said McIlroy’s putting is what has gotten him to No. 1..
“I think he has a huge amount more belief than he had two years ago,” McDowell said. “Yes, he was not a standout closer two years ago because he didn’t have the putting ability. Now he has the putting ability and he’s starting to win regularly, like we all knew he could.
“It’s fantastic to see,” McDowell added. “It’s great for golf.”
A storm blew through PGA National in the morning, knocking over the floating scoreboard on the 18th hole and suspending play at 9:40 a.m. After a nearly two-hour delay, the leaders teed off at 12:20 p.m.
But while the weather brought tougher winds, it also softened the course. Lee Westwood made an eagle and five birdies to get to eight under. Rickie Fowler shot 66 to get to six under. And then came Woods’s stunning round, which came within a shot of Brian Harman’s course-record 61, which he shot Friday.
McIlroy was not at his best from tee to green, but he was terrific with the putter. He made a 13-foot par putt on the second hole, an eight-footer for par at the fifth, and two-putted from 54 feet on the par-4 sixth.
“I’m getting better at, when I do get into contention, knowing what I need to do,” McIlroy said, “and that just comes with experience. It comes from getting yourself in those positions.”
After another loose shot on the par-3 seventh, which missed right, he chipped well past the hole but made his 12-foot par putt.
The sun was beginning to poke through the clouds as McIlroy made a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-4 eighth, his first birdie of the day, to take a two-shot lead over 43-year-old playing partner Gillis. The day’s biggest movers had begun the final round too far back, and after that putt McIlroy looked headed for victory and No. 1.
Woods put together his best round since he shot a third-round 62 at the 2009 BMW Championship, his last official victory on the PGA Tour.
Showing the explosiveness in his game that has been lacking, Woods eagled two par 5s, made four birdies and kept his round going with tough par saves to come within a shot of the course record.
Although the former No. 1 said he’d played just as well in his 4-and-3 victory against Aaron Baddeley at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne last fall, Woods hadn’t put all facets of his game together in an official stroke-play event since his life began to unravel with personal problems and injuries in late 2009.
He made a 27-foot putt to eagle the par-5 third hole, and birdied the fifth (nine feet) and seventh (10 feet) despite the unsettled weather.
“Starting out when the wind was really howling,” Woods said. “I just kept telling myself I played great in Australia in the same conditions.”
He birdied the 11th (14 feet) and 17th holes (25 feet) before his most sensational shot of the day. Still three behind and needing at worst a birdie on the par-5 finisher, Woods blistered a 325-yard drive, followed by a 203-yard 5-iron over the water that settled eight feet right of the pin. His putt dove over the front edge of the cup, setting off a huge roar around the 18th green, and Woods threw his familiar right jab.
After Ernie Els had tapped in for birdie, the crowd began chanting Woods’s name, and he tipped his cap. Els could only laugh afterward.
“We were talking and I said, ‘I remember being your lucky charm, you son of a bitch,’” Els said. “And he just smiled.”
The 62 marked the lowest final round of Tiger’s PGA Tour career, and for a brief moment got him within a shot of the leader. But McIlroy, undaunted, birdied the par-4 13th hole to go 12 under and build his cushion back to two shots.
“The only time I really thought about [Woods] was when I heard that roar on 18,” McIlroy said. “I knew that putt on 13 was going to be very important.”
His up-and-down on 14, from a buried lie in the rough in front of the green, was equally important. McIlroy opened up his 60-degree wedge, and the ball popped out and rolled up to the cup. He would call it “probably the best” up-and-down he made all week, and there were many to choose from.
After steering away from the water, he had to get up and down from the left bunkers on the par-3 15th and 17th holes — his seventh and eighth one-putts of the day. With a par at the 18th hole, McIlroy was officially at the top, and he hugged his father, Gerry, behind the green. Rosie, Rory’s mother, was also on site. (It was a home game for McIlroy, who rents a home in the Jupiter area, and Woods, who has a sprawling estate on Jupiter Island.)
The new No. 1 planned to spend Sunday evening celebrating while flying to New York, where his girlfriend, tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, is scheduled to play an exhibition Monday night.
“Might be a late one tonight,” McIlroy said.
With the old No. 1 back at full strength, or close to it, the game was suddenly bursting with possibilities.