Tiger Woods saw first-hand a month ago what Adam Scott witnessed Sunday at the Australian Open: Rory McIlroy’s got game.
Woods, a loser to McIlroy in an exhibition event in China in October, predicted his friend would earn a victory before the end of the year. The two-time major champion did just that with a birdie on the final hole (highlights here) at Royal Sydney to keep the U.S. Masters winner from capturing the Australian Triple Crown and himself from going 0-for-2013.
"I thought, worst-case scenario, I'd have a putt for a playoff and then all of a sudden I have a putt for the win. I didn't want to go extra holes," McIlroy told reporters after posting a final-round 6-under 66 to get to 18-under for the week, one shot clear of Scott.
"All I focused on in the putt was my routine," he said after ending his year-long title drought with a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th green. "I didn't do anything differently. I didn't think about whether it was to win the Australian Open or whether it was to get the first win this year."
McIlroy, who changed golf gear and weathered issues with his golf swing after a sensational 2012 season, has dealt with several off-course distractions as well over the past season. The former world No. 1 put all that behind him by shocking home-country favorite Scott, who was on his way to adding the Aussie Open to his nation’s PGA and Masters titles.
"Really pleased. Really pleased," McIlroy, ranked sixth in the world after his prolonged slump, said about finally scoring his first worldwide victory since last November, when he came in first at the European Tour’s season-ending World Tour Championship. "Since end of September I’ve just felt in a better place mentally, with some things off the course, definitely felt better with how my swing was. I just felt like everything was coming together the way I wanted it to."
McIlroy has claimed for some time that his game was on track and has proved it with two recent top-10 finishes (a T6 at last month’s WGC-HSBC Champions followed by a T5 in Dubai) since failing to qualify for the PGA Tour’s Tour Championship in Sepember. Just ask Tiger.
"He is playing better and swinging a lot better. You can see that some of the stuff he and his coach are working on are starting to come together," Woods said after bowing, 68-67, to McIlroy in the meaningless tourney at Mission Hills. "He's starting to put together a few good rounds, now he just has to make a few more putts. I can definitely see him winning sometime this year because his game has come around."
McIlroy will use his Australian Open win as impetus for a strong 2014 but first he’ll take his new-found confidence to Tiger’s tourney. With the onus of a no-win season off his back, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland will tee it up next week at Woods’ Northwestern Mutual World Challenge along with the host, defending champ and countryman Graeme McDowell, reigning PGA champion Jason Dufner, and 14 other top players.
"It’s been a frustrating year, but I’ve worked hard, it’s been a process and trying to get back to winning golf tournaments again," McIlroy, sounding a theme familiar to Tiger-watchers, conceded Sunday. "It was nice to be able to do it today."