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Mahan exposes fragility within McIlroy
The Rory era is coming.
Of that, there can be little doubt.
It should’ve arrived — officially — on a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon in the Sonoran Desert.
The precocious Rory McIlroy had a gilt-edged opportunity to become the new world No. 1, a position many of the savants believe to be his destiny.
It is curious, and not a little disconcerting, that his coronation has had to be postponed.
Second-ranked McIlroy, who is 16 months older than Tiger Woods was when he first ascended to the top of the world rankings, had done the hard work.
He‘d come back from 3 down after four holes to comfortably dispose of his one-time good mate — and now fierce rival — Lee Westwood, a man he’d never beaten head-to-head, in the semifinals of the Match Play Championships at Dove Mountain.
Emotionally, it was no easy task, as any man who’s had to go to battle against an older brother — and these two were once as close as brothers — knows.
To finish the job, to win his first World Golf Championship event, all the Northern Irishman needed to do was take care of underdog American Hunter Mahan in the final.
Mahan came into the week ranked 22 in the world. The last time a player with that ranking made the final — Stewart Cink in 2008 — he was routed in the final by Woods.
The 22-year-old McIlroy, who admitted he was trying to emulate Woods when he won the US Open by eight shots last summer and intends on challenging Woods' other records, must’ve loved the symmetry.
And he certainly must’ve loved his chances, as did most in the golf world.
Mahan is a good, solid pro. But his pedigree isn’t anywhere near that of McIlroy.
Almost 30, Mahan has won three times on the PGA Tour. Each time, he came from way behind, shooting a very low Sunday round and benefiting from the wilting of those behind him.
The only real time he’s played in the cauldron of the final pairing at a big event came when Corey Pavin thought it a good idea to throw the laid-back Californian into the anchor match at the last Ryder Cup.
It ended in tears — literally — for Mahan after McIlroy’s closest friend in golf, Graeme McDowell, emphatically delivered victory for Europe.
Mahan's confidence was high after he put a new putter in his bag — and he had to have felt good after disposing of the pesky Mark Wilson earlier on Sunday morning — but old ghosts came back to haunt him.
His Achilles' heel always has been chipping and, after playing many fine chips on the way to the final, he inexplicably flubbed a straightforward chip on the first hole.
It led to the sloppiest of bogeys.
All McIlroy needed to do was to coax in a 4-footer for par to take the lead, literally and spiritually.
But he missed.
It was a critical blunder because it gave Mahan hope and reinforced his desire to prove the chattering classes wrong.
“Deep down, you wanted to postpone that crowning of the No. 1 player in the world for Rory,” he later said.
“He'll get there. I mean, he's phenomenal. He's really talented. He'll be No. 1 eventually. But yeah, when you're a player, and I listen to Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo and all those guys, they had him picked to win. And that's what everybody was talking about. There was absolute motivation in that.”
The irony is that Mahan didn’t have to do anything special on the outward nine.
McIlroy made mistakes — the most catastrophic coming on the seventh when he allowed Mahan to win the hole with a bogey — and at the turn, even though the American was only at even par, he had a accrued a commanding 3-up lead.
McIlroy responded with a blistering attack on the back — shooting 5-under par over the final seven holes — but a resolute Mahan held him off for a thoroughly-deserved 2-and-1 victory.
Mahan didn’t just win, he exposed a fragility that exists within McIlroy.
He aspires to become the next Tiger, but in his heyday, would Woods have left Arizona without the trophy?
McIlroy later admitted that he’d been left emotionally drained by the Westwood match, which he’d made into his personal final.
“This is no disrespect to the other two guys in the other semifinal, Hunter and Mark, but to me it was like my final, in a way,” he said.
“That was the one I wanted all week, and I got it. And that’s what I got myself up for.
“Maybe mentally and emotionally it did take a little bit out of me.”
McDowell has crowned McIlroy “golf’s next superstar,” while another Irishman, Padraig Harrington, has predicted that McIlroy — not Woods — has the best chance of eclipsing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.
That may all be true, and No. 1, as McIlroy said on Sunday, is “hopefully inevitable.”
But golf’s aspiring young king has a more critical decision to make: Does he want to be ruthless enough to become the next Tiger?
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