Rory McIlroy could see the top of the world from the first tee on Sunday, his climb less imposing than ever before. The most formidable obstacle remaining was himself.
Yet McIlroy's ascent is still on hold, his own deficiency conspiring with Hunter Mahan to delay it. In the meantime, they left us with these questions: Why isn't one winning more and why hasn't the other won more?
Mahan, 29, defeated McIlroy, 2 and 1, in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, only his fourth career victory and first in 18 months, but one that has some salivating at the possibilities. Again.
"It could springboard him into being the best American player," NBC's Johnny Miller said on Sunday's telecast. "I think he's ready to have that label."
His swing has always generally performed with the requisite precision, but his short game has not always cooperated. Recall the chunked chip with the Ryder Cup on the line in Wales in October, 2010.
"I have to chip and putt if I want to win and that was a strength this week," he said. "I made a putter switch and felt great on the greens immediately."
It was an upset that never resembled one. Mahan was the best player in the field from the first round to the last (36 birdies) and the best player in the final from the first hole to the last. He made four birdies on the back nine at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Marana, Ariz., to fend off McIlroy's demonstration of the talent that eventually (sooner rather than later) will land him atop the World Ranking.
McIlroy had an eagle and three birdies on the back nine to cut a four-hole deficit in half. It was great, but not good enough. Therein lies the problem.
In the March issue of Golf Digest, Jaime Diaz wrote about identifying the next young star. McIlroy is among the candidates of course, but there is this, as Diaz wrote: "[He] has yet to prove he will be a prolific winner."
This isn't to suggest he is an underachiever; at 22, he is the reigning U.S. Open champion, who with a victory on Sunday would have become the second youngest ever to hold No. 1 in the World Ranking (Tiger Woods was 21 when he ascended to No. 1) and still is No. 2. But only winning matters at this level and for McIlroy it is still more a goal than an expectation -- not yet a habit while in possession of skills that could make it one.
Comparisons to Woods are generally unfair, but one is warranted here. If Tiger were to have dispatched a rival in a semifinal, it would have piqued his desire to bury his opponent in the final. McIlroy won his grudge match with Lee Westwood on Sunday morning, then seemed to let down.
"Yeah, probably," he said when confronted with that possibility. "I knew that was going to be the toughest thing for me. I was getting myself up for that semifinal match. It probably took me a few holes to get going. But that's really not an excuse. I just didn't play well enough when I needed to."
He lost holes six, seven, eight and 10 to fall four down, thus postponing the inevitable, his ascent to No. 1.
"Rory's a great player," Mahan said. "He's the best player in the world right now, for sure."
Only by acclamation. It's still incumbent on him to win with greater frequency to earn the distinction. In the meantime, it's still an uphill climb.
-- John Strege
(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)