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McIlroy Nearly Number One

He missed out at the weekend but he will get there

Posted Feb 29, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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Last year’s change of format almost certainly cost Rory McIlroy the chance of winning the Accenture World Matchplay final against Hunter Mahan and thereby claiming the world number-one spot.  The 22-year-old Holywood star suffered on two counts -  by having to face semi-final and final matches morning and afternoon, and by having the decider reduced to 36 holes.

Under the old format, which was changed after Ian Poulter captured the title in 2010, McIlroy’s titanic semi-final against Lee Westwood would have been played on Saturday afternoon.  Which meant having Saturday night to recover from the huge emotional strain involved.

And the fact that Sunday’s final was reduced to an 18-hole sprint, meant he had little chance of recovering from a faltering, front nine.  As it happened, McIlroy effectively relinquished his chance of the title by losing the sixth, seventh and eighth holes.

It was clear he was finding his second wind through some sparkling play on the homeward journey, but with holes running out rapidly, there simply wasn’t the time to undo the earlier damage.  The crucial hole, in my view, was the tantalising, 315-yard par-four 15th.  By that stage, McIlroy had fought back from four down to two down and another loss for Mahan would have been a devastating blow.  Instead, the American chipped and putted from short of the green to match McIlroy’s two-putt birdie and be two up with three to play.  From there, reasonable care is all that Mahan needed to secure the title.    

The nature of the match emphasised the wisdom of Mark McCormack in having a 36-hole format from start to finish, in his Wentworth version of this particular challenge.  Very few, if any of the champions over the formidable West Course could be described as fortunate.  In a searching test over 36 holes, superlative competitors such as Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros and Ernie Els were not going to be denied.

As it happened, the staging of both the semi-finals and final last Sunday in Tucson, was equally significant, in my view.  From McIlroy’s comments on Saturday night, it was obvious how much the clash with Westwood meant to him. The youngster hadn’t forgotten the way his seasoned rival brushed him aside when both of them battled for the Dubai World Championship in November 2009.  That was when Westwood led McIlroy by five strokes after 54 holes and then completed the job, almost contemptuously, with a closing round of 64.

Further spice was added to their rivalry, of course, by McIlroy’s decision last October to break with International Sports Management, the company which handles Westwood’s affairs, and throw his lot in with the relatively new, Horizon Sports Management in Dublin.  A bizarre decision was how the Englishman described the move.  So, against that background, it is reasonable to assume that victory over Westwood last Sunday morning came at a huge price for the Irishman in terms of emotional commitment.

As for the final: commentators made so much of Mahan’s critical collapse against Graeme McDowell in the Ryder Cup singles at Celtic Manor in October 2010, that it was almost as if they were expecting him to do the same again, when serious heat was applied last Sunday.  The fact that it didn’t happen is simply a reflection of the different pressures involved in the two challenges.  In the Ryder Cup, a player has to bear the forbidding weight of team expectation, whereas in singles combat, Mahan had only himself to consider.  That’s a crucial difference.

When McIlroy was a lad of 10, an earlier Ulster golfing hero, Darren Clarke, beat no less a figure than Tiger Woods to win what was then the Andersen Consulting Matchplay title at La Costa, 12 years ago.  "I watched all of Darren's matches on television on that occasion,” he said recently. "It's my target to repeat that win."  Though it didn’t happen last Sunday, one suspects the breakthrough cannot be far away.  And the same can be said of becoming world number one.

- Dermot Gilleece

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