World No. 1 at stake for Rory McIlroy

MARANA, Ariz. -- For 281 weeks, Tiger Woods was the No. 1-ranked player in the world. When he lost that mantle in October 2010, a void was left in the game. Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald have tried to fill the slot, but their impressions of greatness have failed to sustain the aura that men like Woods and Greg Norman brought to the ranking when it was launched in 1986.

Since turning pro in 2007, Rory McIlroy has shown the potential to carry on the legacy of Woods and Norman. McIlroy's swagger, beautiful golf swing and confident stride reward fans with a genuine superstar. Even as he shot 80 at the 2011 Masters to blow a 6-shot lead on Sunday, there was little doubt that he would one day be the top-ranked player in the world. With an 8-shot win at the U.S. Open in June, it became just a matter of time before he would take up the throne vacated by Tiger.

The 22-year-old native of Holywood, Northern Ireland, has the chance this week to bring back some swagger to No. 1 in the world ranking. If he can win three more matches at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he will supplant Donald in the top spot.

On Friday, McIlroy beat 48-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez 3 and 1 in the third round. For most of the day, he gave a clinic in ballstriking. In his first nine holes, he hit five approach shots within 7 feet of the hole. His driving, always a strong aspect of his game, was accurate and long.

"I felt like I played my best golf of the week today," McIlroy said. "I still hit a couple of loose ones, but for the most part I felt like I drove the ball great. I hit a lot of iron shots close to the pin."

On Saturday in the quarterfinals, McIlroy will face Sang-Moon Bae, a 25-year-old South Korean rookie. Bae beat John Senden 1 up in a close match.

If McIlroy can get past Bae and Lee Westwood can beat Martin Laird, a semifinal on Sunday morning would match two players with a chance of becoming No. 1 with a win.

"Lee is playing well at the minute, had a great chance to win in Dubai," McIlroy said. "And for the most part has looked very strong this week. We both have to win our matches tomorrow."

At times on Friday, McIlroy looked disinterested, as if he was having trouble staying engaged in his match against Jimenez. It was difficult for him not to look ahead to possibly becoming No. 1 in the world. After saying that the greens weren't very difficult to read on Thursday, he admitted after his third-round match that they were very tricky.

He's still a kid. Coming off of one tee he told a couple of reporters that his favorite cartoon was "Tom and Jerry." He seemed bored. But the thought of becoming the No. 1-ranked player in the world helps to refocus him.

"I've said it all week, it gives me a little bit of motivation, a little bit of an extra incentive, not that I really need one," McIlroy said. "It's a World Golf Championship and there's plenty of ranking points and plenty of money up for grabs.

"It's nice to have in the back of your mind. And if you are struggling in a match and find it hard to get yourself up or get any sort of momentum, if you think about that and you think if you can really dig deep you still have a chance to become No. 1. It can work both ways. You can turn it into a positive if you want."

Come Sunday, golf could get a No. 1 in the world with the confidence and style that Tiger and Norman brought to the sport. McIlroy already has the major championship, the worldwide schedule and a celebrity girlfriend, former WTA No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

He has everything except the No. 1 world ranking.

McIlroy has surprised us before. Most didn't expect him to shoot 80 on Sunday at Augusta or make Congressional look like a pitch and putt at the U.S. Open. But no one in the game is more prepared than he is to put a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot. He might never equal Tiger's 623 total weeks or Norman's 331, but he will bring some needed gravitas to the game's main statistical barometer of consistent and dominant play.

Ultimately, the Official World Golf Ranking needs McIlroy as much as he needs it.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.