GAME ON

Rory McIlroy, the charismatic 22-year-old with the swing to die for, took over as world No. 1 by winning the Honda Classic, but a dazzling finish by Tiger Woods sent the message that a new battle is about to begin
March 12, 2012

The locker room at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., was empty on Sunday night but for a handful of attendants, a coterie of police and one happy but fatigued 22-year-old golfer.

Rory McIlroy needed food. He had a flight to catch. The completion of his childhood dream in the face of his childhood idol had left him famished.

"Can I steal a cracker?" McIlroy asked while eyeing a platter of fruit and cheese. His request granted, McIlroy wolfed down a solitary wafer and a square of cheese. Two plastic to-go plates were prepared for his getaway.

A young boy approached McIlroy with a golf ball to autograph.

"Great win," said the boy, barely coming up to Rory's waist.

"Thank you," said McIlroy, signing the ball in large loops.

McIlroy sank into a thick brown chair. Twenty-one white Honda Classic flags were set out before him on a table, and he signed each in beautiful cursive. The TV over McIlroy's left shoulder showed highlights of the tournament—of him scrambling through the Bear Trap to win by two over Tiger Woods and Tom Gillis to ascend to No. 1 in the World Ranking; of Woods shooting a spectacular eight-under-par 62; of McIlroy again, smiling through his press conference and talking about the Masters.

McIlroy never looked up. A black Honda Odyssey Touring edition was idling out front, waiting to whisk him to the airport for a flight to New York City, where he would meet his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, before returning to Florida for this week's World Golf Championship at Doral.

McIlroy posed for a photo with two of the policemen and walked outside. He hugged his parents, Gerry and Rosie. He hugged his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald. The night was young, and the golf season was never more alive.

"Well done, Number 1," Fitzgerald said, as McIlroy ducked into the backseat of the vehicle. He punched some keys on his iPhone and was gone.

The year had already been stellar, with Kyle Stanley's fall and rise, the Tiger--Phil Mickelson Pebble Beach face-off, and the Rory--Lee Westwood desert throwdown. Then came the Honda, unfolding like a serialized novel. With a muscular test of golf and a raft of locals on the leader board (Jupiter, Fla., home owners Woods and Keegan Bradley; Jupiter tenants McIlroy and Gillis), the old Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic never shone more brightly. Each night the grounds of PGA National turned into a party, with country music under the stars and hip-hop music in the hotel lobby.

McIlroy added his own wattage, racing to the 54-hole lead with a chance to become the second-youngest world No. 1 in history, after Woods. That was a meaty enough plotline until Tiger, nine shots back at the start of the final round, started throwing eagles and birdies McIlroy's way. Woods went out in 31, making eagle at the 3rd, shaping irons that moved in both directions, twirling his clubs in his Sunday red. On the 13th tee he pounded a majestic draw that disappeared on the horizon. "Fairway," he said, handing the club back to his caddie, Joe LaCava. Woods was calling his shots again.

Of his 62 swings, none was more throwback than number 61, a murdered five-iron from a hanging lie on the watery, par-5 finisher. The ball faded gently and settled eight feet right of the hole, reminding Woods of the six-iron he hit from a bunker over water 12 years ago at the 72nd hole while winning at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Canada.

Woods didn't choose that memory by accident. He won three consecutive majors that year in the midst of his run to the Tiger Slam. He ruled the world. Now? He isn't interested in playing for silver medals.

"It was just a matter of time before things all fell into place," he said. "And it's just a matter of time before I put it all together for an entire tournament."

Woods went to the clubhouse for a late lunch and some TV (Lakers-Heat, volume turned up; Honda Classic, volume turned down) to see if his 62 would be good enough to merit his first Tour victory since September 2009. McIlroy answered Woods's late eagle with a birdie on 13 to regain his two-shot cushion. Then, after saving par from a nasty lie right of the 14th green, McIlroy made a pair of gutsy sand saves on the par-3 15th and 17th, two of the three Bear Trap holes, which ruined cards all week. While not as dominating as his eight-shot win at last year's U.S. Open, McIlroy, who finished at 12-under 268, was every bit as impressive at the Honda.

At dusk, McIlroy stood on the 18th green clutching a crystal trophy, surrounded by tournament volunteers, junior golfers, reporters and photographers. The questions came from all directions, in Irish brogues and Long Island accents, among others.

"I heard the roar on 18 when Tiger made eagle," McIlroy said. "I was just about to line up my putt for birdie on 13. I was able to hole that putt, which was very important. I'm getting better when I do get in contention. That comes with experience."

He looked wiser than his years, his biceps flexing as he cradled his trophy. Gerry said his son was a different player from the one who last April lost a four-shot lead at Augusta National during a final-nine 43.

"Night and day," Gerry said. "He learned so much from it. If you can't learn from something like that, there's no point. What he did at the U.S. Open after the Masters, it was unbelievable."

Fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell said McIlroy is the best player he has seen, though he was quick to admit he never played with Woods in those Glen Abbey years. No king wears the crown forever, and that is why as the sun set at PGA National on Sunday, there was still a buzz in the air.

A world-class field will tee it up this week at Doral, and the Masters is less than a month away. Can it get any better?

OF WOODS'S 62 SWINGS, NONE WAS MORE THROWBACK THAN THE 61ST, A FIVE-IRON AT 18.

Sports Illustrated

BONUS SECTION | GOLF.COM

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID WALBERGNAVIGATOR The Bear Trap at PGA National has swallowed up many a golfer, but McIlroy played the famed three-hole stretch in three under par for the week. PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID WALBERGBE WARNED Woods is winless since September 2009, but his play at the Honda was proof that he's close to putting everything together.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)