Saturday, December 16, 2017

McIlroy survives a Woods charge

PALM BEACH GARDENS — Rory McIlroy won the Honda Classic with a performance worthy of the new No. 1 player.

When it looked as though McIlroy had no serious challenge Sunday, Tiger Woods had a birdie-eagle finish for 8-under 62 — his lowest final round ever — to get within one of the lead.

Standing on the 13th green, McIlroy heard the roar from the farthest corner of PGA National.

"I knew that wasn't a birdie roar," the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland said. "I knew it was an eagle roar."

He responded with an 8-foot birdie putt, then three par saves during a daunting stretch.

He played it safe with a two-shot lead on the par-5 18th and made par to close with 1-under 69 and the victory he needed to replace Luke Donald atop the World Ranking.

"It was tough, especially seeing Tiger make a charge," McIlroy said. "I knew par golf would probably be enough. To shoot 1 under in these conditions, when you go into the round with the lead, is very nice.

"I always had putts on the practice green as a 10-year-old to beat Tiger Woods.''

McIlroy is the second-youngest No. 1 behind Woods, who was 21 when he went to No. 1 after the 1997 U.S. Open.

Donald quickly tweeted a congratulatory message.

Woods made two eagles in the final round and wound up in second at two back, along with Tom Gillis.

"I'm thrilled with my play," Woods said. "It was just a matter of time before things fell into place.''

McIlroy, who finished at 12-under 268, has five career wins. He has finished out of the top five once since the PGA Championship in August.

"There's very few players as good as him at his age out there winning tournaments," three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. "And he has a good balance in his life. He looks like he's going to be here for a while."

Woods was nine back going into the last round, but shooting 31 on the front nine in blustery conditions left him five back. The finish gave him a chance.

"To me, it was the old Tiger back, the guy that I remember," said Ernie Els, who played with him. "He never missed a shot or made a bad swing."

Woods shot 270, his lowest 72-hole score since 265 at the 2009 BMW Championship, his last PGA Tour win.

In the 23 previous PGA events Woods played since 2010, he finished in the top 10 three times (fourth each time). He withdrew twice. He missed two cuts. He finished lower than 25th seven times.

So, is he back?

"I just need time," he said. "I switched coaches, and I got hurt for most of last year, and I started putting the pieces together.

"I'm hitting more solid shots. I'm making more putts. My speed is getting back. Everything is coming, and I just need to keep progressing. It's going to turn."


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