Rory McIlroy proves worthy of No. 1

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Perhaps this will simply go down as a step along the journey, a place where he would inevitably arrive, the date and time not nearly as important as the destination itself.

Rory McIlroy, almost everyone in the game of golf concurs, was headed to the No. 1 ranking he achieved Sunday by winning the Honda Classic.

But to do it while Tiger Woods was shooting 62 six groups ahead of him to finish second in his best performance in more than two years?

Now that is a moment to remember.

"This golf season just got a lot more spicy," said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner who preceded his countryman from Northern Ireland to that title by a year. "Obviously Tiger is back doing only outrageous things that Tiger can do, and we have a world-class field around him now as well.

"Obviously I'm pulling for Rory. I think he's the best player on the planet right now."

It was never going to be easy Sunday for McIlroy, 22, the reigning U.S. Open champion who a week earlier had a chance to go to No. 1 if he had won the WGC-Accenture Match Play. He lost in the final 2 and 1, but the opportunity presented itself again at the Honda to move past Luke Donald -- but only if he won.

McIlroy took a 2-shot lead into the final round over PGA Tour rookie Harris English and tour journeyman Tom Gillis, but conditions and nerves always seemed like the bigger obstacles. The weather changed overnight, bringing gusty winds and rain that caused a two-hour delay before McIlroy teed off.

His record with a 54-hole lead didn't offer an overabundance of confidence, either. In five tries, McIlroy failed to convert three times, including the epic meltdown at the Masters a year ago when he led by four strokes and shot 80.

If all that was not enough … then there was the man in the red shirt, making a charge unlike any he's made during the final round of a PGA Tour event.

"It was a lot more meaningful," McIlroy said. "The way I won today, as well, was great. I made a couple of par saves early and there was a 62 and a 63 out there, which was unbelievable playing."

Say what you want about Woods and his struggles, but there is something magical about a golf tournament when he puts together the kind of run he did Sunday, making four birdies and two eagles, including one at the 18th hole that had the grandstands rocking and the ground shaking.

"I heard the huge roar and it definitely wasn't a birdie roar," said McIlroy, who was on the 13th hole at the time. "That's when I knew he had probably got to 10 [under]."

McIlroy's lead, which had been nine strokes over Woods at the start of the day, was down to 1. The Northern Irishman faced an 8-footer for birdie at the 13th, with several treacherous holes remaining. "I knew that putt was incredibly important," he said.

He buried it to go back up by two strokes, a huge relief even if there was plenty of difficulty ahead.

McIlroy got up and down for pars at the 14th, 15th and 17th holes and completed a remarkable week in which he scrambled beautifully. He missed 24 greens but got up and down 20 times. He had eight 1-putt greens Sunday.

The victory was McIlroy's fifth worldwide as a pro and third on the PGA Tour and it continued a run of 10 top-five finishes in his past 11 starts in which world ranking points were available. The lone finish outside of the top five was an 11th at last year's Dubai World Championship.

"He's played like that for four or five months that I can remember," said Lee Westwood, who shot a final-round 63 to finish fourth, meaning McIlroy had two former No. 1s exerting pressure on him. "I've seen the stats and you're not counting one of the tournaments he won in China [an unofficial event called the Shanghai Masters that paid $2 million for winning]. I played with him the first two rounds that week and he played great.

"He's a very good player, very young, still learning, got most of the shots. I think he's got a fairly bright future."

Westwood's dry wit was on display Sunday, as well.

"I told someone the other day that the amazing run is just beginning," said McDowell, who is ranked 15th in the world, "because Rory McIlroy is about to become the world's No. 1 and he's going to win multiple, multiple majors and it's exciting and Irish golf is going to be healthy for a long time to come.

"Like I say, if I can somehow hang on to the curly-haired man, I'll be OK. I'm so happy for him, he's a fantastic player, a great kid and he's going to be a fantastic world No. 1."

Woods' 62 did not produce the victory he seeks, a first official win in more than two years. But he certainly did not head to his home on nearby Jupiter Island feeling bad. The 62 was the lowest he has ever shot in a final round of a PGA Tour event, his lowest score since the third round of the 2009 BMW Championship -- the last of his 71 PGA Tour titles.

After making just one birdie on the par-5s through three rounds, Woods eagled both of them Sunday, the 5-iron from 216 yards to 8 feet at the 18th providing some incredible drama.

"To me, it was the old Tiger back," said Ernie Els, a Hall of Famer who's been on his share of losing outcomes to Woods over the years and played with him Sunday. "The guy I finished second to all the time. It was him being him again. I don't think he missed a shot all day."

Said Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava: "He hit every shot exactly the way he wanted to hit it -- little hooks, little fades, anything he wanted."

All of which sets up an intriguing run-up to the Masters next month. Three weeks ago Phil Mickelson came out on top at Pebble Beach, then lost a playoff the following week at Riviera. McIlroy has gone 2nd-1st the past two weeks to climb to the top spot in the world. Woods, for all the angst about his game, shot his best score since his 2010 comeback and now has four top-five finishes in his past five stroke-play events.

"Exciting times," McIlroy said. "I think it's fantastic for the game. Seeing Phil do what he did at Pebble, Tiger playing the way he did today, hopefully I'm in there somewhere, getting to No. 1.

"I think it's great for the game and I think everyone is excited for Augusta to roll around. I definitely know I am."

If it's anything like Sunday at the Honda Classic, the azaleas and dogwoods at Augusta National don't stand a chance.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.