PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Three years ago, when Rory McIlroy was 19 years old, Tiger Woods said the Northern Irishman would be the world’s No. 1-ranked player one day.
As it turned out, that prediction by Woods, who knows something about being No. 1 (623 total weeks, ending in Oct. 2010) came true Sunday at his expense.
The 22-year-old McIlroy hung on to beat a resurgent Woods, denying him what would have been his first PGA Tour victory in 29 months, and won The Honda Classic at PGA National’s Champion course. To rise to No. 1 and pass the idle Luke Donald, McIlroy had to win.
Woods, who started the day nine shots back of McIlroy, had his lowest career final-round score – 8-under-par 62 – to put the pressure on McIlroy, who was in the mid-point of the back nine when he finished his round.
McIlroy was about to putt on No. 13 when Woods made an 8-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole to cut his lead to one.
Seconds later, McIlroy made an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 13 to pull two ahead of Woods. He followed with five consecutive pars to finish with 1-under-par 69 for 12-under 268 total and a two-shot victory over Woods and journeyman Tom Gillis (69 on Sunday).
“It was nice because I knew what I needed to do,” McIlroy said. “I needed to par in.”
McIlroy, who became the first international player to win this year on the PGA Tour, handled the pressure of Woods breathing down his neck by scrambling for pars on Nos. 14, 15 and 17 after missing the greens.
“It was tough today, especially seeing Tiger make a charge,” said McIlroy, who opened with 66-67-66. “It was great to get the job done.”
The victory sets McIlroy up for a run at the green jacket he left behind at Augusta National last year when he blew a four-shot 54-hole lead, shot 80 and tied for 15th.
With McIlroy’s victory Sunday, Woods’ game rounding back into shape and Phil Mickelson winning at Pebble Beach, “these are exciting times,” McIlroy said.
“I think it’s fantastic for the game; Tiger and Phil are the best players of their generation,” McIlroy said of Woods and Mickelson, who have combined for seven green jackets. “I think everyone is excited for Augusta to roll around. I know I am. I’m looking forward to getting back there and giving it another shot.”
Woods had two eagles and four birdies in his 62, which was one shot off his career low.
“It feels good,” Woods said. “I’ve been close to shooting scores like this. It was just a matter of time before things all fell into place. Everything is coming. I need to keep progressing. Today is one of those days I got a lot out of my round.”
McIlroy, the current U.S. Open champion, is the second-youngest player to make it to No. 1. Woods was 21 when he won the 1997 Masters Tournament.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be world No. 1,” McIlroy said. “I never thought I’d be able to do it this quickly. It’s fantastic to be here. Hopefully, I’d like to stay here for a while.”
Woods praised McIlroy’s steady play.
“For him being No.1, its a testament to how consistent he’s been,” Woods said. “He’s been very, very consistent.”
Indeed, since the PGA Championship in mid-August of 2011, McIlroy has not been out of the top 11 and has two victories in 10 starts.
He was coming off a runner-up finish to Hunter Mahan in last week’s Match Play Championship.
“That’s pretty impressive playing,” Woods said.
McIlroy is the first Irishman to ascend to the top spot in the ranking, which was established in 1986.
“He’s been destined to be in this position for a long time,” fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington, a three-time major championshp winner, said at the Honda Classic. “This is something that’s been a natural progression. He’s always been successful. This is natural in that sense.
“No. 1 is a big deal; it’s never happened before (in Ireland),” Harrington said. “I think it’s an incredible achievement regardless of his age. To get to world No. 1 is very impressive. You can’t take it away from him.”