'Exciting times': World number one McIlroy
Two words said it all as golf’s new world number one Rory McIlroy flew from Florida to New York to celebrate with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.
“Exciting times,” said the 22-year-old after winning the Honda Classic in thrilling fashion to become the second youngest player to top the rankings since they began in 1986.
Indeed they are. With his return to The Masters, scene of his nightmare final-round 80 last year, only a month away it is not just ending Luke Donald’s nine-month reign which has US Open champion McIlroy licking his lips.
It is also the fact he won after Tiger Woods applied the pressure with a birdie-eagle finish for 62, the lowest final round of his career.
Not only that, there was also Lee Westwood’s closing 63, his lowest-ever round in America, and do not forget that only three weeks ago Phil Mickelson wiped the floor with Woods with a closing 64 at Pebble Beach.
“I think it’s fantastic for the game,” said McIlroy, who in an incredible run has only once finished outside the top five in 12 tournaments since the USPGA Championship last August.
“I think everyone is excited for Augusta to roll around. I definitely know I am. I’m looking forward to getting back there and giving it another shot.”
Everybody has known for a long time how well McIlroy can hit the ball, but what his third victory in America proved is how much he has improved his short game and his nerve.
He does not mind admitting he choked at Augusta last April when he went from four ahead after 54 holes to 10 behind with the worst round of anybody that day.
But at Palm Beach Gardens he did not miss once from inside 10 feet on the final day, made a brilliant par save from deep rough on the 14th and twice got up and down from bunkers in the last four holes.
“I feel like I’ve always believed in my ability, it’s just doing it at the right times,” he said.
“I’m getting better at knowing what I need to do when I get into contention. That just comes with experience. I definitely don’t doubt myself as much as I used to.
“Obviously you try to forget the bad experiences and remember the good ones. It gives me a little bit of confidence knowing if I get myself in that position again that I’m able to finish the job off.
“It was always a dream of mine to become the world number one, but I didn’t know that I would be able to get here this quickly.”
McIlroy, who at 16 shot 61 at Royal Portrush, turned professional in 2007 and came third in only his second event, but had to wait a further 16 months for his first victory.
He broke through in America with a course record closing 62 at Quail Hollow just before his 21st birthday and then last June – only two months after his Masters meltdown – became the youngest winner of the US Open since Bobby Jones in 1923.
That alone was staggering, but he won by eight shots and with a score that broke the championship record by four.
Compatriot Graeme McDowell, McIlroy’s stablemate, Ryder Cup partner and predecessor as US Open champion, said: “This golf season just got a lot more spicy.
“Obviously Tiger is back doing only outrageous things that Tiger can do, but Rory is the best player I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty scary to see what he can do with a golf ball.
“As soon as he learned how to putt he was going to be a dominating force and you’re starting to see that now. That was the missing link.
“He was not a stand-out closer two years ago because he didn’t have the putting ability. Now he has.”
Last spring, as things went so horribly wrong at Augusta, Westwood highlighted the fact that “when he gets under a bit of pressure he’s got a pull hook in his bag”.
Their rivalry has grown since McIlroy changed management companies in October and the Ulsterman took huge satisfaction from winning their semi-final clash at the Accenture Match Play two weeks ago, even though losing the final to Hunter Mahan delayed his ascent to the number one spot.
“He’s a very good player – very young, still learning, got most of the shots,” said Westwood in Florida after finishing fourth. “I think he’s got a fairly bright future.”
The 38-year-old’s own immediate future could see him or Donald – “Congrats. Enjoy the view,” he told McIlroy on Twitter – reclaiming the number one position at this week’s world championship in Miami.
But Westwood knows The Masters is the big one coming up, especially as he has yet to break his major duck, and winning it suddenly looks a whole lot tougher.