Rory McIlroy was six holes away from winning the Honda Classic and going to No. 1 in the world, an outcome that looked inevitable as he stood on the 13th green Sunday at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
That’s when he heard the roar.
Even from the farthest corner of the course, McIlroy knew it was for Tiger Woods. And McIlroy could tell by the sheer volume that it was an eagle.
“I could hear the huge roar,’’ McIlroy said. “And it definitely wasn’t a birdie roar.’’
For Woods, it was a moment that finally put some color into that red shirt, a birdie-eagle finish for a 62, the lowest final round of his career to get within one shot of the lead and force the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland to play the final hour with little room for error.
But this is no ordinary kid.
McIlroy answered with clutch shots of his own, a performance that showed why he’s the new No. 1 in golf.
He poured in the 8-foot birdie putt on the 13th for a two-shot lead. He gouged out a wedge from grass so deep he could barely see the ball to save par on the 14th, and he twice saved par from the bunker on the scary par 3s for a 1-under 69 and a two-shot win.
“It was tough today, especially seeing Tiger make a charge,’’ McIlroy said. “I knew par golf would probably be good enough. To shoot 1 under in these conditions, when you go into the round with the lead, is very nice. And I was just able to get the job done.’’
McIlroy became the 16th player to be No. 1 since the world ranking began in 1986, and the fourth player in the last 16 months since Woods abdicated the top spot after a five-year reign. McIlroy replaced Luke Donald and became the second-youngest player to be No. 1 behind Woods, who was 21 when he first got to the top after the 1997 US Open.
“It was always a dream of mine to become the world No. 1 and the best player in the world or whatever you want to call it,’’ McIlroy said. “But I didn’t know that I would be able to get here this quickly . . . Hopefully, I can hold onto it for a little longer.’’
He celebrated by flying to New York to spend time with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, before returning to South Florida this week for a World Golf Championship tournament.
Woods made two eagles in the final round and wound up two shots behind, his best tour finish since he was runner-up in the 2009 Tour Championship. Tom Gillis birdied the last hole for a 69 to join Woods.
McIlroy, who finished at 12-under 268, won for the fifth time in his career. Three of those are on the PGA Tour, including his record-setting victory in the US Open last summer.
He has finished out of the top five only once since the PGA Championship last August, winning three times, including the Shanghai Masters in an unofficial event against a world-class field.
“There’s very few players as good as him at his age out there winning tournaments,’’ three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. “There are guys with potential, but he’s already delivered. And he has a good balance in his life. He doesn’t look like a guy who is going to burn out. He looks like he’s going to be here for a while.’’
McIlroy shared a big hug with his father, Gerry, as he walked off the 18th green. His parents have come over from Holywood to stay with him in South Florida through the Masters, where McIlroy figures to be a top favorite. But after a Sunday like this, no one will be quick to rule out Woods.
He was nine shots behind going into the final round, and even a 31 on the front nine in blustery conditions left him five shots behind McIlroy. But the finish - especially that 5-iron into the 18th green - was vintage Woods, and it at least gave him a chance.
“To me, it was the old Tiger back, the guy that I remember,’’ said Ernie Els, who played alongside him. “He never missed a shot or made a bad swing.’’
Lee Westwood, playing two groups ahead of Woods, closed with a 63 to finish in fourth.
“It was a lot of fun out there,’’ Graeme McDowell said. “It was just roars going up all over the golf course. For Rory to go out today with a two-shot lead and have Tiger shoot 62 on him and Westwood shoot 63, it just shows how hard it is to win golf tournaments on any tour in the world, but especially this tour.
“This golf season just got a lot more spicy.’’
Nationwide - Edward Loar won the Panama Championship in Panama City, holing a 6-foot par putt on the final hole for a 4-over 74 and a one-stroke victory over Cameron Percy, Ryan Armour, Luke List, and Brian Smock. Loar was four strokes ahead entering the final round, and survived a triple bogey on the seventh hole.