Golf is often about moments — good ones and bad ones.
Right now, Rory McIlroy has returned to the home of one of those good moments. A year ago, McIlroy held off Tiger Woods in a crowd-pleasing duel to win the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens.
What made it such a special moment for McIlroy?
The victory moved him for the first time in his career to the No. 1 ranking in the world. That, along with his two victories in majors — the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA, both by eight strokes — clearly have to be highlights of McIlroy’s career.
Now, he’s back in town trying to repeat as Honda champion, starting with Thursday’s first round.
“This is the first tournament I won last year, and it’s a tournament that first got me to No. 1 in the world,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “So, obviously, nice memories.”
But there’s a caveat. McIlroy, 23, frankly admitted he doesn’t feel at the top of his game.
“I obviously was disappointed last week not to get further in Match Play,” he said of losing in the first round of the Accenture WGC event in Arizona. Of course, he had some well-known company exiting with him. That would be Tiger Woods, who also said goodbye early.
So, while the Match Play Championship was being decided Sunday, McIlroy and Woods decided to get together at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound.
Private match play
In near anonymity, or at least as close to anonymity as the No. 1 and No. 2 golfers in the world can achieve, they decided to (what else?) play some golf.
“We thought we would put on our own match-play final,” McIlroy said with a laugh.
Obviously, considerably less money was involved in this friendly.
McIlroy and Woods actually played 36 holes.
“He beat me the first time, and I beat him in the second, so we’re even,” McIlroy said.
According to McIlroy, the match was “speed golf.” They teed off at 8 in the morning, and McIlroy said he was home by 1:30.
“We played quick,” he said. “He [Tiger] putts with the pin in. It was good, and it was really enjoyable.”
Not so enjoyable are some recent swing and equipment adjustments McIlroy has been making.
Many people are attributing McIlroy’s less-than-stellar start this year to a change in clubs that now has him using Nike gear. McIlroy doesn’t think it’s quite that simplistic.
“I knew coming into it that it would be a bit of a process,” McIlroy admitted, “and I knew there were going to be comments if it didn’t happen for me right away.
“I’m only two tournaments into the season. I’ve still got more than 20 tournaments to go. It’s not like I’m in any rush. Everything is there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
As for winning Honda, it’s also a matter of whether Woods puts it all together and challenges again. When they tee it up Thursday, that friendly they played on Sunday will be forgotten and their faces will be considerably more intense-looking.
Hoping for drama
In this encore meeting, fans are hoping that McIlroy and Woods can produce similar drama to last year.
In that final round, Woods, playing five holes ahead of McIlroy, eagled the 18th to shoot an 8-under-par 62 and pull to one stroke behind.
That eagle had the fans loudly whooping and hollering for Woods, causing McIlroy to pause over an eight-foot putt on the 13th until the sound subsided. From the noise, it was clear to McIlroy that Woods had eagled. He also knew what he had to do — then he went out and did it.
He calmly rolled in the putt on 13 and took a two-stroke advantage. Then McIlroy, going through the infamous Bear Trap, parred the final five holes to win the championship and claim the No. 1 ranking.
This year might be even a greater challenge for McIlroy. Can he dismiss his so-so start and repeat?
McIlroy didn’t give a definitive yes or no, but said, “It’s a golf course I’ve always enjoyed playing, and I’ve played it well in the past.”