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McIlroy holds off Tiger, goes to No. 1

(AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) Rory McIlroy was six holes away from winning the Honda Classic and going to No. 1 in the world, an outcome that looked inevitable as he stood on the 13th green Sunday at PGA National.

That's when he heard the roar.

Even from the farthest corner of the course, McIlroy knew it was for Tiger Woods. And McIlroy could tell by the sheer volume that it was an eagle.

"I could hear the huge roar," McIlroy said. "And it definitely wasn't a birdie roar."

For Woods, it was a moment that finally put some color into that red shirt, a birdie-eagle finish for a 62, the lowest final round of his career to get within one shot of the lead and force the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland to play the final hour with little room for error.

But this is no ordinary kid.

McIlroy answered with clutch shots of his own, a performance that showed why he's the new No. 1 in golf.

He poured in the 8-foot birdie putt on the 13th for a two-shot lead. He gouged out a wedge from grass so deep he could barely see the ball to save par on the 14th, and he twice saved par from the bunker on the scary par 3s for a 1-under 69 and a two-shot win.

"It was tough today, especially seeing Tiger make a charge," McIlroy said. "I knew par golf would probably be good enough. To shoot 1 under in these conditions, when you go into the round with the lead, is very nice. And I was just able to get the job done."

McIlroy became the 16th player to be No. 1 since the world ranking began in 1986, and the fourth player in the last 16 months since Woods abdicated the top spot after a five-year reign. McIlroy replaced Luke Donald and became the second-youngest player to be No. 1 behind Woods, who was 21 when he first got to the top after the 1997 U.S. Open.

"It was always a dream of mine to become the world No. 1 and the best player in the world or whatever you want to call it," McIlroy said. "But I didn't know what I would be able to get here this quickly. ... Hopefully, I can hold onto it for a little longer."

He celebrated by flying to New York to spend time with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, before returning to south Florida next week for a World Golf Championship.

Donald responded quickly to the victory, tweeting "Congrats (at)McIlroyRory enjoy the view!"

Woods made two eagles in the final round and wound up two shots behind, his best finish on the PGA Tour since he was runner-up in the 2009 Tour Championship. Tom Gillis birdied the last hole for a 69 to join Woods as a runner-up.

McIlroy, who finished on 12-under 268, won for the fifth time in his career. Three of those are on the PGA Tour, including his record-setting victory in the U.S. Open last summer at Congressional.

He has finished out of the top five only once since the PGA Championship last August, winning three times, including the Shanghai Masters in an unofficial event against a world-class field.

"There's very few players as good at him at his age out there winning tournaments," three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. "There are guys with potential, but he's already delivered. And he has a good balance in his life. He doesn't look like a guy who is going to burn out. He looks like he's going to be here for a while."

McIlroy shared a big hug with his father, Gerry, as he walked off the 18th green. His parents have come over from Holywood to stay with him in south Florida through the Masters, where McIlroy figures to be a top favorite.

After a Sunday like this, no one will be quick to rule out Woods.

He was nine shots behind going into the final round, and even a 31 on the front nine in blustery conditions left him five shots behind McIlroy. But the finish - especially that 5-iron into the 18th green - was vintage Woods, and it at least gave him a chance.

"To me, it was the old Tiger back, the guy that I remember," said Ernie Els, who played alongside him. "He never missed a shot or made a bad swing."

Lee Westwood, playing two groups ahead of Woods, closed with a 63 to finish alone in fourth.

"It was a lot of fun out there," Graeme McDowell said. "It was just roars going up all over the golf course. "For Rory to go out today with a two-shot lead and have Tiger shoot 62 on him and Westwood shoot 63, it just shows how hard it is to win golf tournaments on any tour in the world, but especially this tour.

"This golf season just got a lot more spicy."

McIlroy wasn't at this best on the front nine, though he did what the best players tend to do by turning a suspect round into a decent score. Despite having only two reasonable birdie chances on the front nine - he made one of them - McIlroy saved himself with a pair of par putts from 12 feet and another one from 8 feet.

No one looked capable of catching him.

Woods was still five shots behind until a finish that served as a reminder why this guy can't be counted out - not at PGA National, certainly not with the Masters around the corner.

"I figured I had to go birdie-birdie to have a chance," Woods said.

He did one better.

First, Woods dropped a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, followed by a big tee shot on an aggressive line that left him a 5-iron into the par-5 18th, with the pin tucked over a bunker to the right side of the green near the water. Woods said it reminded him of his famous shot on the 18th at Glen Abbey in the 2000 Canadian Open, a 6-iron out of a bunker and over the water to a tight pin.

This one cleared the sand and settled 8 feet away, and Woods swept his fist when it dropped for eagle.

He finished at 270, his lowest 72-hole score since he had a 265 at the 2009 BMW Championship, his last PGA Tour win.

The roar of his eagle didn't rattle McIlroy.

"I heard the roar on 18 when Tiger made eagle and I was just about to line up my putt for birdie on 13," McIlroy said. "I was able to hole that putt, which was very important. I knew if I could just play the last five holes at even par, it was going to be good enough.

"Great to get the job done, and very happy to come out on top."

With so much emphasis on his swing, the final hour was all about his will. No shot was more impressive than the par save on No. 14, when he was 65 feet away in such a mangled lie that he easily could have hit it too hard and gone over the green, or left it well short.

"You just have to really go down for it and hope it comes out the way you think," McIlroy said. "Luckily for me, it did, and it left me a pretty simple 4-footer up the hill."

McIlroy had seven one-putt greens (another was a birdie from the fringe) in the final round, and one-putted four of the last six holes.

"Even if I don't play my best golf, I can still challenge, which gives me a lot of confidence," McIlroy said. "When I'm firing on all cylinders, I feel like I'm hard to beat."

Updated March 4, 2012

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