PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Rory McIlroy made quite a first impression in America, even when he lost.
He made his pro debut on American soil in the Arizona desert at the 2009 Match Play Championship. As a 19-year-old, McIlroy advanced to the quarterfinals and threw everything he had at Geoff Ogilvy until losing on the 17th hole.
Ogilvy, who went on to win his third World Golf Championship that week, recalls riding back to the clubhouse with his caddie, Allistair “Squirrel” Matheson, both of them realizing that the landscape was about to change.
“I played so good that day,” Ogilvy said Sunday morning from his home in California. “I birdied 15, 16 and 17 and halved all three holes. We were way under par that day. Both Squirrel and I said, ‘This guy is going to be unbelievable.’ And then Squirrel said, ‘If you want to be No. 1, you’re going to have to be better than this guy.’ Because not many people in the world will be better than that.”
Never mind that Tiger Woods was No. 1 in the world by miles, and would go on to win seven times that year.
There was something special about this freckled-face kid with brown curls spilling out from under his cap, who played the game with a delightful mixture of joy and reckless abandon.
“Since that first day I saw him play, he was a level above us,” Ogilvy said.
Their premonition came true when McIlroy won the Honda Classic in fashion befitting the No. 1 player in the world.
He didn’t flinch when Woods went birdie-eagle for a 62, his best final round ever, and nearly nine shots better than the average score Sunday. McIlroy could hear the roar from a mile away, gathered himself and then rolled in a birdie putt. He followed with three par saves over the last five holes for a two-shot victory, elevating him to No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy became the 16th player to become No. 1, ending the 40-week reign of Luke Donald, who sent a congratulatory message on Twitter by telling Boy Wonder, “Enjoy the view.”
McIlroy is the second-youngest player to be No. 1 in the world ranking — Woods was 21 when he first reached the top after the U.S. Open in 1997. And it should be noted that Woods only stayed at No. 1 for one measly week. After trading places with Ernie Els, Greg Norman and eventually David Duval, Woods finally established himself as the best by staying at No. 1 for more than five years.
It’s too early to call McIlroy the next Tiger.
Even though there are similarities in their age, it is worth pointing out their differences.
McIlroy reached No. 1 in his 115th tournament that count toward the ranking; Woods reached the top in his 21st tournament.
McIlroy won for the fifth time in his career, including a U.S. Open he won at Congressional by eight shots with a record score (268). When Woods played 115 tournaments, he already had won five majors and 32 tournaments around the world.
Even as Woods appears to be getting closer to regaining full form, his gallery was double the size of the crowd following McIlroy in the final round, and not just because Woods has made south Florida his new home. Woods remains compelling. No one has ever won more majors so quickly, and there remains interest whether he can make it all the way back.
Four players have been No. 1 since Woods abdicated his throne 16 months ago — Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and now McIlroy. The difference is that McIlroy is so young, and already has accomplished so much.
He might only have five wins, but three were in the United States, including a major.
Not everyone accepted Westwood as the world’s No. 1 player during his two stints that covered 22 weeks because he never won a major. There is no correlation between No. 1 and winning majors, it only seemed that way because Woods was at the top for so long and had won 14 majors before he turned 33.
That’s why Donald, despite being No. 1 longer than anyone besides Woods in the last 15 years, was slow to gain proper respect. It took him winning the money titles on two tours before Donald got his due.
Kaymer had won a PGA Championship, yet remained an enigma.
With McIlroy, there is no debate.
“He’s got a game that people think is world No. 1,” three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. “That’s why nobody is going to have any complaints about Rory being world No. 1. He won a major at a young age. He’s got the game. Yeah, you can compare him with Tiger. He’s still got a lot to do. And there’s no doubt that Tiger’s 14 majors are very impressive.
“But if you’re going to win a lot of majors, you’ve got to start winning them early,” Harrington said. “At 22 years of age, the world No. 1, a major in the bank, he’s going to play a lot of majors where he’ll be the favorite.”
Harrington won his first major at Carnoustie in 2007, when McIlroy was an 18-year-old amateur who played bogey-free in the opening round for a 68 and went on to be the low amateur. At the trophy presentation that day, Harrington said he was happy to get his major before this kid from Northern Ireland started winning one.
“There’s very few players as good as him at his age out there winning tournaments,” Harrington said. “There are guys with potential, but he’s already delivered. And he has a good balance in his life. He doesn’t look like a guy who is going to burn out. He looks like he’s going to be here for a while.”
Not since Woods has anyone shown this much potential at such a young age. McIlroy has worked hard on his short game, particularly his putting inside 6 feet, which had kept him from winning more. In his last 12 tournaments, he has won three times (one of them the Shanghai Masters, which was unofficial). Only once he has finished out of the top five.
This is the consistency required of the No. 1 player in golf. McIlroy has consistency and power, a lethal combination. And there doesn’t appear to be any swing changes along the way.
“He’s a very good player, very young, still learning,” Westwood said. “I think he’s got a fairly bright future.”