|Rory McIlroy (right) loses in the finals of Match Play, failing to secure the No. 1 ranking. (Getty Images)|
MARANA, Ariz. -- Tending to his own business, Rory McIlroy missed an up-close opportunity to get a glimpse of one of the more, well, mythic birds of the television era.
As he stood on the fifth tee of a match earlier this week, a roadrunner bolted across a nearby dirt cart path, a mouse in its mouth. For a kid from the United Kingdom, having a chance to spot a live roadrunner, a native of the Southwest, must be as rare as eyeballing the Loch Ness Monster.
"Roadrunner, as in, 'Meep, meep?'" McIlroy said, conjuring up the legendary cartoon image in his mind. "What was the name of that, that, coyote?"
That would be Wile E. Coyote, the hapless character that chased the younger, quicker, higher-horsepower roadrunner in those Saturday-morning cartoons through the decades. For most of the week, it seemed a lock-sure characterization to describe the surging McIlroy and the 63 others trying to wring his neck.
The drawing of the final picture was more akin to those ACME cartoon weights finally falling on his head. With the world No. 1 ranking virtually within his reach, the faster, flashier, more colorful McIlroy unspooled in the Sunday final and was pummeled by American Hunter Mahan, 2 and 1.
In the afternoon session, the 22-year-old roadrunner became roadkill, as everybody trailed along behind, figuring they were witnessing his official arrival as the best in the game. For the first time, tournament officials allowed the gallery to fill in behind the players in the final match as they walked up the fairways, but the Ulsterman's coronation, which feels like an absolutely inevitability at this point, will have to wait for another day. Or perhaps next weekend, when McIlroy plays at the Honda Classic.
For all the magic he mustered in winning his first five matches, including an energy-sapping victory over rival Lee Westwood in the morning semifinals, McIlroy will bolt Tucson town with the same world ranking as when he entered: No. 2.
If anything, Sunday reinforced two points. The reigning U.S. Open champion is still a work in progress, with a few remaining rough edges than need some light-grain sandpapering -- same as Tiger Woods was at the same age -- but reaching the top is now a hair's breadth away.
If anything, the disappointment of dispatching Westwood, then running out of steam against Mahan, has strengthened his resolve.
"I just want to keep putting good results up on the board, try to get a few wins," McIlroy said. "If I can do that, then ultimately getting to the top of the world rankings is, hopefully, inevitable, if I keep playing golf the way I am at the minute."
Next Sunday, or the following weekend, sounds pretty darned plausible. In his last 10 events offering world ranking points, McIlroy has finished worse than T5 exactly once. He is playing the next two weeks at PGA Tour stops in South Florida, where he’ll have another chance to gain ground or pass No. 1 Luke Donald.
For at least part of the day, the crowd wanted McIlroy to finish the climb this week, regardless of the fact that he was playing a Yank who won three years ago in Phoenix. Yeah, Mahan noticed the crowd seemed to be more solidly behind his Northern Ireland adversary.
"Deep down, you wanted to postpone that crowning of the No. 1 player in the world for Rory," Mahan said, drawing laughs. "He'll get there. I mean he's phenomenal, he's really talented.
"He'll be No. 1, eventually. I'm not worried about it. I'm sure he's not."
Rory seems to be in a hurry. Eight months after he won his first major by obliterating the U.S. Open scoring record with a score of 16 under, McIlroy nearly achieved another career milestone by reaching No. 1 in his fourth full season as a professional. For comparative purposes, he's only 16 months older than was Woods when he reached the top spot at age 21.
It was all on the table for him after he gulped down a hurried lunch between matches. After a promising morning, the day became a mixed bag for McIlroy, who found himself 3 down early to Westwood before making birdies on seven of 10 holes to secure a 3-and-1 win. His somewhat estranged former management-company stablemate, McIlroy had no trouble admitting that he invested a ton of gasoline in the morning session with Westwood, a former No. 1.
"This is no disrespect to the other two guys in the other semifinals, Hunter and Mark [Wilson], but it was almost like, to me, it was like my final in a way," McIlroy said. "That was the one I wanted all week and I got it, and that's what I got myself up for.
"Maybe mentally and emotionally, it did take a little bit out of me."
Plain and simple, Mahan outplayed him early, taking a 3-up edge into the back nine. McIlroy played a five-hole stretch in 5 under, but it was too late to stop the leakage. Perhaps as testament to his age, the most glaring and costly error came at the seventh, after Mahan had missed the green with a wedge and McIlroy had an opening from 135 yards.
Instead, he missed the green in the same spot as his opponent, the ball trickling down a steep, shaved slope and away from the flag. Two poor pitch shots later, McIlroy had made a careless double-bogey to lose the hole, falling 2 down. He never got any closer the rest of the way.
"I followed him down there, which was just a mental error," McIlroy said, shaking his head. "I should have been going long of the pin. It was just a bad mistake."
He was far sharper against Westwood, 38, which was no surprise considering the back story between the pair. McIlroy set his alarm clock for 5:15 a.m. for his 7:20 match against Westwood, not that he really needed it. He'd been thinking about the match against the three-time European Tour player of the year since he saw the brackets taking shape earlier in the week.
It's hard to say he was on fumes by the afternoon, but it's also hard to dismiss that possibility out of hand.
"I knew that was going to be the toughest thing for me today, because I was getting myself up for that semifinal match and if I got through I'd have to get myself back up for the final," McIlroy said. "It probably took me a few holes to get going. That's not really an excuse, you know, I just didn’t play well enough when I needed to."
After the disjointed front nine against Mahan, it was effectively all over but the accounting and check-writing. McIlroy, long ago anointed by just about everybody -- including Woods -- as a future No. 1, will have to stew on the near-miss.
At least until he plays the next two weeks at Honda and Doral.