PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Graeme McDowell, the winner's countryman, was watching Rory McIlroy play the final hole on Sunday in the locker room at PGA National. A case of Champagne and boxes of glasses were being carted in on a hand truck for a party. You could tick off four things to celebrate without breaking a sweat.
McIlroy's win. His ascent to No. 1. Tiger Woods's closing, brilliant 62, in a wind he hadn't seen all week. And the general feeling that professional golf just feels just so damn robust at the moment. Just look at the year so far. We'll supply the names, you supply the pictures. Robert Rock and Tiger Woods. Kyle Stanley. Kyle Stanley Part II. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. Hunter-Rory. Tiger on Sunday at the Honda. Rory at the Honda.
"You know, he's more of a Corona man," McDowell told the men moving Champagne. "That's what he drinks." He's 22. He can drink in all 50 states.
In 2010, McDowell became the first Irishman to win the U.S. Open. In 2011, McIlroy became the second. On Sunday night, McIlroy made a beautiful cross-court two-putt on 18 to seal the deal, to win the Honda Classic by two and to get everything that comes with it. The money. The adulation. The satisfaction. The Corona.
"That's the biggest difference, the putting," McDowell said. Comparing Rory's putting game from June 2010, when McDowell won his Open, to June 2011, when McIlroy won his, McDowell sees a sea change.
"His full swing is very flowing, very natural, very instinctive," McDowell said. "And his putting game was not. It was mechanical. And now his putting stroke is like his full swing."
There's a man who gets an assist for that. Actually, there are three. There's Rory, who fixed the problem. There's Dave Stockton, the putting guru, who made a simple suggestion on how to do it. And there's J.P. Fitzgerald, McIlroy's caddie, who urged his boss to see Stockton. The three first got together in Charlotte last May, at the Wachovia, a couple of weeks after McIlroy's Masters Sunday meltdown. They had never met before.
They spent about 25 minutes talking and about 10 minutes on the practice green.
"He didn't need much," Stockton said by phone Sunday night. "He plays fast, but I felt he actually walked too fast to the ball, and then he gave it too much of a hit. I just wanted him to slow down walking to the ball, let his instincts take over and let the follow-through feel more like a stroke than a hit."
McIlroy missed that cut in Charlotte. The next month he won the U.S. Open by eight.
Stockton most recently saw McIlroy at the Accenture Match Play. His advice there was for McIlroy to get some sleep, having come in from Dubai. You have to love an instructor you can actually understand.
"He doesn't seem like he's 22," Stockton said. Many have noted how mature McIlroy is. He's an only child who has been traveling the world, sometimes by himself, since he was a young teenager. Most young students, Stockton said, want to do more than what they are asked to do. McIlroy is not like that.
Stockton, upbeat by nature, was particularly happy on Sunday. After a long hiatus, he had spent the weekend working with Yani Tseng. In other words, two of his short-game students are ranked No. 1 in the world.
As for Woods, attention must be paid. Given how hard the wind was blowing, particularly on his front nine, Tiger's Sunday score was astounding, right there with the 64 Phil Mickelson shot at Pebble in the finale to win. It takes a really agile golfing mind to play a course you don't know that well in a stout breeze that's out of a direction you haven't seen all week. The Sunday wind at PGA National was more like a September wind in Boston. You could see Tiger's superior golf mind at work, and you could see every facet of his golf game coming together. Now, one round of golf is just that, but Woods will surely build on what he did at the Honda.
"You're hearing a lot about Tiger's mechanics on his putting, but I don't think that's been the issue," Stockton said. "Rory has a very relaxed personality, and it shows on the greens. That's the next thing for Tiger, to get relaxed on the greens, to get him to see the line of the putt better, to see the hole look bigger to him."
It's so wonderful to hear Stockton demystify putting when so many others are making it sound like rocket science. Of course, getting relaxed on the greens and making relaxed strokes is a lot easier to do when you reach the green relaxed. This stuff is hard. Golf's hard. Chances are, if you're reading this, you play the game yourself and you know it. The reason everyone was in such a good mood Sunday night was because Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods made a difficult thing look easy, and that's hard to do.
"What I've tried to do with Dave is see the line, not be too mechanical," McIlroy said Sunday night. "I just feel a lot more freed up."
How much fun is this, watching an athlete let it go? How inspiring? Doesn't watching McIlroy make you feel like you might play better yourself? That's what Graeme McDowell was saying Sunday night. He said his plan was to go down to Doral and get in the mix. He expects to see Rory and Tiger right there with him.
"Golf's in a good place," he said.