World No 1 title eludes exhausted McIlroy

 

Rory McIlroy won the battle but lost the war. Having shot down Lee Westwood in yesterday's morning's World Match Play semi-final grudge match, McIlroy got held up and ambushed 2&1 in the desert by Hunter Mahan in the final.

It was bound to happen. The Northern Irishman had expended so much energy to take down his English rival, he had no bullets left to fire at the American. He was left with an empty barrel after that match with Westwood.

"To me, in a way, it was like my final," McIlroy said. "That's the one I wanted all week. Maybe mentally and emotionally that did take a lot out of me. But Hunter deserved to win."

McIlroy began the final like he had just been thrown out of a saloon bar window. He looked bleary-eyed and punch drunk. Bogey to start. Then two birdies. Then another bogey. The holes were halved in a raggedy, low-energy start. The only bright spot was Mahan's fireman's helmut hat.

The American caught fire at the 6th. Not literally, obviously. It was hot in the Arizona desert. But not that hot. Mahan just had to play par golf for the front nine as McIlroy racked up bogies and a double bogey. Mahan went four up with a birdie at the 10th and McIlroy never recovered.

McIlroy lost the final but won the match that should have been the showpiece shootout. The Kid shot down the Old Gunslinger. Got him from behind. Just like in the movies. A grudge settled.

It was impossible not to see the Wild West shoot-out analogy as McIlroy and Westwood moseyed onto the first tee against a backdrop of the Tortolita Mountains. They could have been cowboys swinging through the doors of a saloon bar. Rory the Kid and Westwood Earp fixing for a fight. All that was missing was an Ennio Morricone score blasting out of the PA system

There was not so much as a glance between the two rivals on the practice putting green. There was an early-morning chill in the air and it was not just the temperature. Barely a word was spoken.

The Kid and Earp forced smiles as they posed together for a photograph with the trophy. They looked at each other as if to say: "Howdy playing pardner." Or maybe it was more like that Sparks song from the 1970s. "This town ain't big enough for the both of us. And it ain't me who's gonna leave."

But that's what match play is all about. Look your rival in the eye with a death stare and aim to take him down. McIlroy drove off first: bang, three-wood straight down the middle of the fairway. And Westwood matched him. Both twirled their drivers like sharpshooters spinning their Colt 45s around their fingers before slotting them back into their holsters. Okay, stuffing their drivers back into their bags.

The first hole was halved in pars but Westwood then raced to a three-hole lead courtesy of McIlroy messing about in two bunkers and missing a short putt. The Englishman had the swagger, his sergeant major's strut. McIlroy was being bullied.

Not so fast, cowboy. The best way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him. McIlroy went on a scintillating run of six birdies in eight holes from sixth to go three up at the 13th, where Westwood drove his ball into a woman's sweater. The poor lady was not the only one feeling hot under the collar. Westwood was overheating in the desert. It was McIlroy who was now strutting his stuff. In that comeback run, McIlroy rammed home 77 feet of putts. Killer blows for Westwood. Bullets to the heart.

This match had everything: booming drives, dazzling chips, birdies rattling in as if it were the Ryder Cup, air punches, lucky bounces, and even a motivational "get in there" F-word from Westwood as he holed out to halve the 11th. They gave each other no quarter. Nothing. Indeed, Westwood signalled for McIlroy to hole out from no more than 18 inches to win the fifth. So that was nice and friendly. But McIlroy refused to be intimidated.

The handshake at the end after McIlroy had won 3 & 1 was of the prickly cactus kind. McIlroy headed off for a tilt at becoming world No.1 that would ultimately topple over. Westwood, meanwhile, trudged off the green to try to motivate himself to play Mark Wilson in the consolation final, otherwise known as the losers' match. Wilson lost to Mahan 2 & 1 in the all-American semi-final. Wilson beat Westwood one up.

But it is defeat to McIlroy that will have wounded Westwood most. Worksop's favourite son may well have fallen off that wagon he's been on all year to ease his pain. McIlroy was gracious in defeat and it is surely only a matter of time before he is crowned world No.1.

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