SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Unless he changed his routine, Rory McIlroy started celebrating his 26th birthday on Monday by going to the website of the Official World Golf Ranking to see where he stood. It was neither a gift nor a surprise.
Everyone knows he is No. 1.
McIlroy only wants to know by how much.
“Every Monday morning, I go on the website and look at what my lead is — hopefully, lead — and tomorrow morning will be the same,” he said.
This was shortly after he beat Gary Woodland, 4 and 2, to win the Match Play Championship. And it was in response to a question about whether McIlroy felt more like the No. 1 player with the trophy at his side than before he won all seven matches at the TPC Harding Park.
“I don’t need any wins or validation to feel like that,” McIlroy said.
It was his second win of the year. He has won two of the last three World Golf Championships he has played. He joined Tiger Woods (29) and Jack Nicklaus (17) as the only players to have won 10 times on the PGA Tour at age 25 or younger. He made it with one day to spare.
And it was made all the better by the timing.
This was the first tournament since Jordan Spieth won the Masters and moved to No. 2 in the world.
“I think everyone — not just me, but everyone on tour — was inspired seeing Jordan do what he did at Augusta,” McIlroy said. “This is the start of a nice little run of golf for me, and I wanted to come out and play well and increase my lead in the world rankings … and keep going. But it’s always nice to have people pushing you. And I feel like he’s one of the guys doing that right now.”
Not since the prime years of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson has there been this much hope for a championship match between No. 1 and No. 2.
Spieth played as well as anyone during the round-robin portion of the tournament by going the equivalent of 15 under par over 49 holes. This being match play, all those birdies didn’t matter when Lee Westwood outplayed him on the last two holes and eliminated him on Friday.
Not to worry. There’s always another week. The Players Championship starts Thursday.
By then, of course, the public could be ready to crown some other young star on a tour that is loaded with such potential. Spieth said as much before the Match Play began when he was asked if he felt as though he was the player with the biggest target on his back.
“Within the first two weeks after the Masters, yes,” was his honest reply.
Spieth knows who rules golf at the moment. He might have a green jacket, but McIlroy still has the crown.
He also understands the attention that comes with decimating the field at Augusta National at age 21 and following that with a 62 right when it looked as if he were running out of gas. And he has made it clear he still has a long way to go to catch McIlroy at No. 1.
McIlroy made it even longer with his Match Play victory.
Spieth also wondered what would happen if Rickie Fowler were to win the U.S. Open. That would be another player to be considered a contender for No. 1.
“I have to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Spieth said. “Yeah, I feel that right now. I like that. I enjoy it. And I want to keep it that way. But again, I think it’s hyped up a little right after the tournament. And that’s cool, but I need to keep doing that in order for it to stay that way.”
What this victory by McIlroy reinforced was that the real battle still to be played out is who earns the right to be his biggest rival. Among players in their 20s, McIlroy has 16 victories worldwide and four majors. Spieth has five wins and one major.
Plus, it’s hard to read too much into a victory in Match Play.
Woods looked out of sync early in 2004. He had gone five straight tournaments without contending — this used to constitute a slump — and had gone more than a year since his split with Butch Harmon. He was just starting to consider a swing change under Hank Haney. He won the Match Play Championship at La Costa, with only one of his six matches going the distance.
It was his only PGA Tour victory that year.
There’s something about leaving town with a trophy, however, and McIlroy looked confident as ever when he headed home to Florida. He had plans to go to dinner with family and friends to celebrate his birthday. But first, he would check the ranking.
“It’s nice to have that healthy lead,” he said. “I just want to try to keep increasing it. Obviously, I’ve done that today. But ultimately, it’s about wins.”