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How McIlroy became king of the world

The moppy-haired boy from Belfast always thought he would be world No 1. Now expect him to dominate the game for decades, writes James Corrigan in Miami

Like most of history's valid accessions, the recipient of the crown had known since childhood his coronation day would come. Perhaps this realisation is why Rory McIlroy, in the words of his father, is feeling "relieved" to be the new world No 1. It is possible to feel on top of the world without slipping into a state of euphoria, you know.

Yesterday, McIlroy was in Manhattan with his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, following a night of celebration after he raced up to New York from his Honda Classic victory at Palm Beach on Sunday. In truth, the party wouldn't have been wild. Not only did the Danish tennis player have an exhibition match against Maria Sharapova at Madison Square Garden last night, but McIlroy has his own challenge this week. Today he flies back to Florida, to this Doral resort, where he will attempt to stop Luke Donald making his the shortest reign as world No 1 in history. Who has time for bubbly when there remain a few resilient bubbles to pop?

Donald, who oddly chose to skip the Honda Classic despite being at his Palm Beach residence, might not even require to win the WGC Cadillac Championship to claim back his throne. But whatever the permutations at the course nicknamed "the Blue Monster", nobody but the deeply deluded can believe that for McIlroy it will be a case of "one and done". No doubt, the 22-year-old will be determined to hold off Donald, but he has already notched up yet another tick which no one can ever take away. "Of course we're proud," so Gerry McIlroy told The Independent. "He has put so much work into it. For Rory, he's just relieved it's happened and that it's done and dusted. If it didn't happen today then the question would have been 'when?' Now he can just get on with it."

Certainly, there is plenty to be getting on with as he assumes the protagonist's role in a chapter promising to be one of golf's most gripping. Rarely has the game approached a major with such anticipation. As well as McIlroy claiming what many considered to be his birthright, there is a certain Tiger Woods on a prowl which at last seems to have teeth. His 62 on Sunday, the lowest final round of his 16-year career, made an unarguable case for his resurgence as he came from nine behind to push the winner to within two shots.

Indeed, if that winner didn't happen to be the moppy-haired boy from Belfast who has utterly captivated the galleries, then every golfing headline for the last two days would have been screaming "Tiger".

And in many respects that is McIlroy's greatest feat in assuming a mantle which will now earn him millions in sponsor bonuses. McIlroy dared to stay in the spotlight at the PGA National when golf's greatest-ever attraction was launching a rerun of the classic award-winners of yesteryear. Not only that, but McIlroy dared do it when his acclaimed long game was nowhere near its best. "His short game was the difference," said Gerry, reflecting on the fact his son managed to get up and down 21 out of 25 times. "But that's just all the practice. Rory has always believed that the more you put into it the more you get out."

McIlroy has stepped up into a new dimension by adding a dimension. "It's since the Masters, really," said Gerry. "He obviously learnt a lot from that experience." Of course, the lessons of patience and course-management were heeded as the agony forced him rapidly to mature. But McIlroy also realised his short game required an overhaul. His work since – partly with Dave Stockton but mainly through his growing understanding of his own "feel" – has produced a startling transformation.

"My short game has improved so much in the last six to 12 months," he said, after his sixth professional win. "It's the reason why I'm up there contending most weeks and it's the reason I won this tournament and am No 1. When I do miss the green nowadays, I'm confident of getting it up and down." Nearby, his close friend nodded. "It's the biggest difference in Rory's game," said Graeme McDowell. "Yeah, there was a little question mark with him from inside six feet. But now he believes he's a great putter. That was the missing link."

The results sheet provides overwhelming evidence. Since the USPGA last August, McIlroy has played 11 tournaments, won three of them, finished in the top five on seven other occasions and come outside the top 10 just once – at the Dubai World Championship in December when he was ill. He still came 11th. Even dengue fever couldn't keep McIlroy outside the top dozen.

It has been a remarkable run which, inevitably, carried him all the way to the summit. The question will now be how long he will spend there; if not in the volatile short term, then certainly in the long term.

The point is that even if Donald hit back immediately, the majority would still view McIlroy as the "real" No 1. Tiger Woods knows why. "It's because he's won a major," said the 14-time major winner, not necessarily agreeing with that reasoning, but understanding its simplicity. Padraig Harrington, as is his way, peered rather further into the perception. "I do believe Rory has the look of a world No 1 in terms of having a big, spectacular game," said his fellow Irishman. "And that's why nobody is going to have any complaints. And neither should they. Because I think he's going to be there for a while."

For a while, try decades. Harrington has always suppressed his natural disdain for the grand statement when it comes to McIlroy's future.

"Yeah, when I won the Open at Carnoustie [and McIlroy was leading amateur] I did say I was pleased to have knocked one of those majors off before Rory got in the swing and last year when he won the US Open I did compare him to Tiger," he said. "Was that comparison fair? Why not? There are guys out there at his age with lots of potential but Rory – like Tiger at his age – has already delivered.

"Rory keeps a really good balance in his life and doesn't seem too obsessive about golf. That says a long career – he doesn't look like a guy who will burn out. Certainly at 22, world No 1, a major in the bank, you have to think he will be playing a lot of majors where he will be the favourite... Rory has 20 years ahead of him."

For now, it is this major year which arrests the imagination. "When I was a kid I always had a 10-footer for a birdie on the 18th to beat Tiger in a major and it would be great to turn it into a reality," said McIlroy.

No the Honda Classic isn't a major and the 10-footer he sank for the critical birdie came on the 13th. Yet in that cool instant, seconds after Woods had closed to within one – McIlroy made the childhood fantasy seem eminently possible. And with Phil Mickelson back in form after his win at Pebble Beach and with Donald and Lee Westwood – who, it shouldn't be overlooked, fired a 63 to finish fourth on Sunday – the prospect of a vintage Masters appears more probable than possible.A clash of the generations beckons.

"That's the great thing about golf – there are no age barriers whatsoever," said Harrington. "A guy in his forties can make it to world No 1 and so can a guy in his early twenties. The younger you are, you have a little less fear; the older you are, you have a little more experience. It levels itself out. But Rory has that experience and has matured a lot. And that makes it even more interesting."

So bring on Augusta, although for now golfing heaven can wait. When McIlroy steps on to his first driving range today as the world No 1 it will be such an apt venue. For it was here at Doral where he made his first splash in America by winning the World Under-10 Championship. Thirteen years on he returns as the best again. But this time, in any age group.

The wonder years: From baby steps to world No 1

Born 4 May 1989

Two Hits a 40-yard drive

Nine Wins World Under-10 Championship in Miami

13 Wins Ulster Boys Championship

14 Wins Irish Boys Championship

15 Wins Irish Youths Amateur Championship

16 Becomes youngest winner of Irish Amateur Closed Championship. Shoots course- record 61 at Royal Portrush

17 Wins Irish Amateur Closed Championship for second year and becomes European Amateur Individual Champion.

18 Wins Silver Medal as Leading Amateur in the Open, after inishing tied 42nd. No 1 ranked amateur. Turns professional and wins enough money from just two events to earn his card.

19 Wins first European Tour event, Dubai Desert Classic, months after losing European Masters in play-off to Jean-François Lucquin after losing four-shot lead

20 Has first top-10 finish in a major at US Open. Becomes second 20-year-old to make world top 10. Records first top-three finish in a major at USPGA.

21 Wins Quail Hollow Championship, first US title, with final-round 62. Shoots 63 in first round of the Open, but has an 80 in second round. On winning team at Ryder Cup.

Leads Masters through first 63 holes before meltdown sees him shoot 80.

22 Becomes Europe's youngest winner of a major at the US Open Championship. Youngest US Open champion since 1923. Becomes second-youngest world No 1 with victory at Honda Classic, his third win in nine events.