No golfer so young had ever appeared in the world's top 50 when Rory McIlroy made that historic leap just before Christmas. But this morning the young Ulsterman's reputation as the biggest phenomenon to hit the game of the golf since Tiger Woods will take on an even more substantial feel.
When the rankings are published the 19-year-old will be No 14. McIlroy is now rated so highly that within the United Kingdom, only Lee Westwood will be adjudged to be better.
That rather incredible stat was confirmed yesterday in Dubai when McIlroy prevailed in a gripping climax at the Desert Classic. With six holes remaining, the blockbuster from Holywood near Belfast was six clear; within five torrid holes his advantage was down to just one. And the irony was that the player closing up fast was one Justin Rose, the last British teenager to be widely labelled a "sensation" and then crack under the pressure.
Rose was the first to confess last night, however, that McIlroy's achievement in winning his first professional title, and doing so by leading wire to wire, by far outshone his own remarkable feat of finishing fourth as amateur at the 1998 Open Championship at Birkdale. "Rory is an amazing talent," said Rose, merely confirming what everyone involved in the sport already knows. He was well-placed to be the one to declare it, however, as he had just seen how McIlroy had surrendered a sizeable lead then recovered it, then threatened to blow it all over again before nervelessly getting up and down at the 18th hole from a greenside bunker to scoop the £300,000 first prize. There were clearly a few jitters, but McIlroy came through and put behind him the two close defeats he had suffered before.
When Rose stood over a 15-foot birdie on the last and McIlroy was eyeing up a tricky four-footer for par it seemed he was about to experience his third play-off in the last five months. And the previous two had been lost.
Except, Rose missed and McIlroy holed and the ecstasy was obvious. "It's unbelievable," he said. "That's a monkey off my back. I've got my first win so it's onwards and upwards. After my third shot [at the last] I thought it was Switzerland all over again when I also had a big lead and didn't win. But over that last putt I told myself, 'This is just for a par – that's all it is'. I managed to kid myself."
In truth, it would have been a golfing injustice if McIlroy had not won and so become the seventh youngest player to win a European Tour title. After an opening 64, he stayed at the top of the leaderboard for every round and ventured out yesterday with a two-shot cushion. And starting the final round at 17-under-par, McIlroy quickly consolidated his lead with three successive birdies on the first three holes. But then a double-bogey on the fifth and a dropped shot on the eighth halted his stunning charge. That would have signalled a collapse for the majority of young professionals but not McIlroy. Finding the inspiration and the guile to come again he reeled off five birdies in a row from the ninth. That was that. Or it should have been.
Just when it appeared McIlroy would cruise to victory, he dropped three shots in a row. The stage was set for a nail-biter, although McIlroy's gumption ensured that the overwhelming emotion was to be one of relief and not agony. "That took some guts to get up and down from the back trap," said Rose happy with his own performance following an indifferent last year or so. McIlroy agreed. "That was probably one of the best bunker shots I've ever played," he said. "If I had not won today, having a six-shot lead, it would have been pretty hard to come back from."
As it is, McIlroy will now go on to his first Masters in April with the punters whispering his name. Certainly, the plaudits of his fellow pros will only emphasise his chance at Augusta and in the majors thereafter. On Thursday after a first-round 64, Mark O'Meara, his playing partner and Woods' best friend, declared he was a better ball-striker at his age than Tiger had been. Not bad for a lad who just three years ago travelled over to Dubai desperate to watch the world No 1 and was so determined to get up close to Woods that he cadged a photographer's pass.
"He most definitely will be a great champion," said Darren Clarke. "There will not be any tournament too big for Rory to win."
Boy Wonder: Others on Holywood blockbuster
"Ball-striking wise, he's better then Tiger [Woods] was at 19. There's no reason why he can't win a Major." - Mark O'Meara
"Way ahead of most 19 year-olds." - Robert Karlsson
"He's got all the shots in the bag and is not scared to play them." - Jean Van de Velde
"Rory is an unbelievable talent." - Darren Clarke
"He has the potential to become Europe's greatest ever golfer." - Ernie Els