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McIlroy's third round feels like coronation to everyone but Tiger

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Rory McIlroy agrees with Tiger Woods to a point, saying 'you can always improve.' (Getty Images)  
Rory McIlroy agrees with Tiger Woods to a point, saying 'you can always improve.' (Getty Images)  

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- By midday Sunday, there's a pretty fair chance that the sports world will be lining up to sing out a familiar phrase in 6-billion-part harmony.

All hail the new king.

Well, mostly everybody is preparing to salute, anyway.

A certain former No. 1 didn't exactly bust out the hallelujahs and hosannas on Saturday as 22-year-old Rory McIlroy took another step toward his seemingly inevitable ascendance to the game's throne.

Seemingly maturing with every passing month, Northern Ireland's comet in cleats fired a 4-under 66 on a breezy Saturday to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Honda Classic, his first 54-hole lead in a regular PGA Tour event.

"He's just a good player," playing partner Dicky Pride said, "regardless of age."

More on Honda Classic

Bordering on great, in fact, though where that line is drawn depends in the individual offering the opinion. Former world No. 1 Tiger Woods, perhaps feeling a bit grumpy after a less-than-stellar week in the media center and on the PGA National course, didn't fall into lock step with the rest.

Maybe it was intended to sound flattering, but it came off with the trajectory of a shanked wedge. It was dismissive at worst, disinterested at best.

"He's developed a lot, but also he's got a lot to learn, too," Woods said.

With a victory, the surging McIlroy can become the second-youngest player to climb to the top of the ranking, one week after a near-miss under identical circumstances in the Accenture Match Play final a week earlier.

McIlroy didn't exactly disagree with Woods' evaluation -- to a point.

"I think you can improve all the time, every aspect of your game," McIlroy said. "At the minute I feel like most aspects are pretty good. At the minute it all feels like it's pretty much right there. But you can always improve."

All that's missing are a few more victories. In his past 10 starts offering world-ranking points, McIlroy has finished T5 or better nine times. Toss in a playoff victory over Anthony Kim at the unofficial Shanghai Masters last fall, and he has two wins over the same span.

Pride got a front-row seat on the wildest ride in town as fans carried the Irishman along like a conquering hero.

"I'm holding back so much right now," Pride smirked, failing to keep the praise bottled up. "What a sexy beast."

The South Florida fans seemed to agree. You could tell where McIlroy was on the course either by looking for the crowd, or merely listening for the hubbub.

"Some guy asked me what shampoo I used on the 17th," McIlroy laughed. "Another asked me if I had any snacks in the bag."

Hey, it was a long march out there, though Sunday might prove even longer. Because thunderstorms are in the forecast, the last tee time has been moved up to 10:30 a.m. ET, and players will be grouped in threesomes. McIlroy will be paired with journeyman Tom Gillis and rookie Harris English, both winless on the PGA Tour and two shots back, in the final round.

Over the years, McIlroy has had a few memorable moments when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead, including two indelible results last year. He blew the lead in spectacular fashion at the Masters, then ran away with the U.S. Open two months later. In all, he has won twice in five opportunities with the third-round lead on the European and U.S. tours, though he also lost the 54-hole lead at the '09 Korean Open, an official event in Asia.

He seems like a completely different player now, however -- more calm, assured and confident. He's not sure what is most responsible for the recent run of success, though simple maturity probably best explains it.

"Hard work, practice," he said. "I feel a little more focused and a little more motivated and that's probably the reason. It seems like every time I go out there I play the way I want to and it's a great feeling that I want to keep going for awhile."

Last week, a victory at the match-play event would have catapulted him from No. 2 into the top spot, but he lost in the final to Hunter Mahan. He used the ranking as a motivational carrot much of the week and suggested that he might try to tune it out this time around.

"I definitely feel like I need to put it out of my mind tomorrow and focus on winning this golf tournament," he said. "It might be difficult. It might creep in every now and again."

It's been a fairly fast creep to the top. Only Woods, who reached No. 1 at age 21, crested the mountain at a younger age. Yeah, we know, McIlroy hasn't done it yet -- but it seems like a fait accompli at this point.

As for Woods, he played alongside McIlroy for the first two days on the European Tour last month and had some glowing things to offer about the Ulsterman's future. This time, for whatever reason, he wasn't slinging it around with similar abandon. It's a safe bet the comments will not be universally embraced as glowing.

"I played with him in Abu Dhabi the first two days -- he's still learning," said Woods, who finished third in Abu Dhabi, one slot behind McIlroy. "He's developed a lot, but also he's got a lot to learn, too. Which [is true of] anyone that age."

Perhaps so, but over the past few decades, his learning curve is perhaps comparable only to that of Woods himself.

"We're all learning," said Woods, who is T18 and nine shots back.

Thousands of fans were won over with zero equivocation. At one point, Pride said some beered-up guy offered a rather tardy opinion that made him laugh out loud.

"I was worried Rory wouldn't be able to sleep at night until this drunk guy says, 'I'm really impressed, Rory,'" Pride laughed.

He might be late to the looming coronation, but at least the guy was right.

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