By Pete Pappas
GolfWRX Staff Writer
Vince Lombardi once said, “You’ve got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you’ve got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body.”
And 2012 Honda Classic Champion Rory McIlroy showed Sunday, he has a heart the size of an Irish truck engine.
McIlroy shot a final round 69 (one-under) at PGA National, averted danger through the treacherous Bear Trap, and finished 12-under, 268 overall, to win the Honda Classic by two shots over Tiger Woods and Tom Gillis.
The thrilling victory was the 22-year old McIlroy’s third-career PGA Tour victory. And the triumph also completed the talented young Irishman’s meteoric (and many have said inevitable) ascension up the world golf rankings to the top spot, No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Overcome the infamously back-snapping Jack Nicklaus “Bear Trap”, and outrival a rebellious Tiger Woods Sunday rally in the same day? Not a bad way to become new World No. 1.
“It was tough, especially seeing Tiger make a charge,” said McIlroy. “I knew par golf would probably be good enough, and to shoot one-under in these conditions, when you go into the round with a lead, is very nice. I was just able to get the job done,” he said.
However McIlroy’s victory wasn’t quite the foregone conclusion many presumed it would be. And it certainly didn’t follow preconceived notions of how the final day would play out.
The script was supposed to be McIlroy cruises, Gillis and Harris English wilt, and the rest of field lack the firepower to catch the young U.S. Open Champion. Film at 11.
Only Tiger didn’t get that memo.
Woods hadn’t played the Honda Classic since he was 17 years old. He hadn’t carded a bogey-free round on the PGA Tour since the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open. And earlier in the week Tiger was visibly irritated by the cantankerous exchange with a member of the media who questioned him about an excerpt from Hank Haney’s new tell-all book, “The Big Miss”.
Pile on a towering nine-stroke deficit to start the day Sunday, and well, did anyone really expect to hear even a “meow” out of Woods? Let alone the return of his legendary roar?
Well Tiger’s roar did return. In fact, it roared at 2000-like, Tiger-Slam decibel levels. And from tee to green, Woods was scorching in his Sunday red, and like once-upon-a-time, at his dominating best.
He led the field in driving distance. His bogey-free, eight-under 61 (four birdies, and two eagles) was the lowest single day score of his PGA Tour career. And he hit 11 of 14 fairways-in-regulation, 14 of 18 greens-in-regulation, and needed only 26 putts on the green.
“To me, it was the old Tiger back, the guy I remember,” said Ernie Els, who was paired with Tiger on Sunday. “He never missed a shot or made a bad swing.” Els said.
A resurgent Woods went four-under through the first seven holes, and shaved the McIlroy lead to five strokes at the bend. And when Tiger finished three-under on the final two holes, including his second eagle of the day at No. 18, he was leader in the clubhouse at 10-under.
Not known to be a leaderboard spectator, McIlroy nevertheless admitted to watching it on Sunday. “Yeah if you see Woods on the board, obviously you’re going to take note of that.”
Even Nicklaus said during the broadcast, “I’d rather be Tiger at this point,” referring to the obvious and significant pressure McIlroy was feeling in those final five holes, not just to maintain his fragile two-stroke lead with Woods already in the clubhouse, but also with the merciless Bear Trap lying in McIlroy’s path to victory.
And that’s what makes what McIlroy did on Sunday, all the more impressive.
McIlroy didn’t win the Honda Classic because he was driving the ball with his normal superman-like precision and power (he hit only 9 of 14 fairways-in-regulation). He didn’t win Sunday because of his stellar pinpoint iron play (he hit only 11 of 18 greens in regulation). McIlroy won on Sunday because, like he did all day, especially when he needed it most, he showed a veteran’s poise, an Irishman’s grit, and above all, a champion’s heart.
McIlroy did what a No. 1 player in the world is supposed to do.
McIlroy never gave in to his mistakes, he overcame them. Need proof? Every putt McIlroy attempted inside 10-feet, he made. He carded a ridiculous number, seven, one-putts on the day. And he was perfect in sand-saves, no. 1 in scrambling.
A tricky par putt on No. 14, was followed by a sliding 10 footer for par on No. 15. And after yet another par on No. 16, McIlroy’s masterful up and down on No. 17, essentially settled the matter.
On the strength of a gutsy one-under 69 on Sunday, McIlroy was the 2012 Honda Classic Champion. And the golf world had a its new reigning World No. 1.
Gillis (who considered quitting the tour in 2006) held his own for the better part of the front nine, coming as close as one shot of the McIlroy lead. But back-to-back bogeys on No. 9 and No. 10, pushed him four strokes back, and seemed to take away any momentum he had built up to that point. Gillis’ one-under 69 on the day (10-under overall), was good enough for a tie for second with Woods), his best ever on the PGA Tour.
English, the third player in the final grouping, took his share of rookie lumps on Championship Sunday. He’ll want to learn from this day certainly, but quickly forget it as well. A seven-over 77 (three bogeys and three double-bogeys) destroyed any hope English had of contending, leaving him in a disheartening T-18 finish at two-under overall.
Other notable performances on Sunday included Lee Westwood, who finished with a seven-under 63 (5 birdies, eagle, no bogeys), which was the lowest single day score of his career. He finished alone in fourth-place at 8-under.
And Justin Rose, who was in contention until the first leg of the Bear Trap, finished T-5, with an even-par 70 on the day, seven-under overall. At No. 15, Rose pulled out his 7 iron, hoping grab a share of the lead (at that point being nine-under, just one stroke back of McIlroy). But his tee shot went right, into the water, and with it went his hopes of winning the Honda Classic.
McIlroy is the second youngest player to achieve the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings.
With the win McIlroy climbs to No. 4 in the FedExCup point standings, 120 points behind leader Kyle Stanley.
McIlroy’s other PGA Tour victories include the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship, and the 2011 U.S. Open.
Only McIlroy and Gillis carded scores in the 60s for all four rounds at Honda.
Defending Champion Rory Sabbatini finished a disappointing seven-over, 287, T-67 for the tournament, leaving Nicklaus as the only player in Honda Classic history to successfully defend his title.