McIlroy poised to claim his throne

Rory takes two-shot lead into final round of Honda Classic with world No 1 spot the reward for victory

palm beach gardens

If today is remembered as the day when the prince finally became the king, then it may also be claimed that this was the day when the boy became a man. In striding to the Honda Classic lead, Rory McIlroy revealed the maturity which could well be the finishing piece in a quite glorious golfing jigsaw.

Two clear of Harris English and Tom Gillis on 11-under, McIlroy is but 18 holes away from becoming the second youngest world No 1 in the history of the rankings. For the second Sunday is succession the 22-year-old is an overwhelming favourite to achieve the victory which would close Luke Donald's spell at the top. Donald's 10-month reign is an impressive length of time in a clearly transitional period in the world order. Yet only the fools would doubt that for McIlroy the sobriquet of "the best" could last a lot longer than that.

Maybe his graduation is most easily summed up in his performance here at the "Bear Trap", the four-hole finale which stands next to any in the demanding stakes. The three previous times he has played the PGA National he was 16-over for the stretch. This week he happens to be six-under, his third birdie in a row on the 18th added the padding to the cushion.

The sceptics will wait to see how his nerve holds today, with high winds predicted and with the Bear snarling, before anointing him. But they would surely be only quibbling with the "when" and not the "if".

As it was, with 30mph gusts this was a severe test yesterday, but with a 66 McIlroy skipped the field. After his defeat in last week's final of the World Match Play, the pressure will be fierce on him to go one better. "I didn't have a two-up lead going in against Hunter [Mahan]," he said. "Maybe I thought about it too much, used it as too much of a motivation. I definitely feel I have to put it out of my mind this time. It might be difficult, it might creep in, but I just have to think about winning the Honda Classic. If I start thinking about what it would mean then I haven't stayed in the moment and I haven't stayed focused. That's what I have to do."

With Tiger Woods out of the equation, down in a tie for 18th, and nine behind, the Florida crowd is ready for some Rory-mania. This is a regular PGA Tour event but the atmosphere has put many majors to shame. The beer is flowing and the wisecracks are following. "It's unbelievable out there," said McIlroy. "Some guy asked me what shampoo I used on the 17th. I enjoy playing in front of galleries like that. I think golf could do with some more of that."

Golf is destined to get so much more of McIlroy. The point is, few out here don't believe he is the best in the world already. English certainly does and as he is also 22, his admiration is notable. The former Walker Cup player, who has been a pro for less than a year, is clearly one for the future. But the young Americam looks at the impending coronation of a contemporary and seems almost resigned.

"Rory's awesome," said English after his own 66. "He's the same age as me, but I've never played with him. To me, he's the best player in the world. It's going to be a thrill playing with him."

The wonderfully named Dicky Pride partnered McIlroy yesterday and the veteran would have confirmed to English what a treat he had in store. "It's real obvious why he won the US Open," said Pride, beaten by five with a 71. "He hits it long, he hits it straight, he hits it so well. Rory just seems so unflappable. To think, I won my first tournament when Rory was only five. There's no doubt about it, he's a sexy beast."

Sexy, indeed. If only Woods could have been so gracious. After a 69, Tiger, who was the youngest to reach No 1 – as a 21-year-old – was asked what he thought of McIlroy. "I played with him at Abu Dhabi in the first two days and he's developed a lot but he's still learning," said Woods. When told Woods's thoughts, McIlroy said: "You can always improve, but at the moment I feel like most aspects of my game are pretty good. I'm striking the ball well, my short game is sharp and mentally I feel good." As evidence he could have evoked the two tremendous par saves on the 13th and 14th. Here is a boy who is thinking about putting the ball in the hole and not about improving.

Padraig Harrington, as is his way, neatly encapsulated the thoughts of the majority in his assessment of the scale of the feat. "It would be a great achievement to get to No 1 anyway, regardless of his age," said Harrington, 11 behind after a 74. "But with his age, it adds something else to it. Phenomenal is probably the word."

McIlroy's great friend Graeme McDowell concurred. "This is only the beginning for this guy," said McDowell, who birdied his last two holes for a one-under 69 that left him tied for 10th on four under par. "I expect to win more majors but I know Rory McIlroy will win more majors. That's the difference."

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