RUSSELL Knox and Rory McIlroy will have had mixed emotions after being pipped by Russell Henley in a dramatic, albeit error-strewn, finish to the $6 million Honda Classic in Florida.
Henley, a 24-year-old American, claimed his second PGA Tour title after winning a four-man play-off - it also included his compatriot Ryan Palmer - with a birdie at the first extra hole.
The consolation for Knox, who’d earlier shown the courage of a lion by holing a nine-foot par putt at the last to secure his place in the shoot-out, was a career-best finish on the US circuit for the 28-year-old from Inverness.
But, for McIlroy, it was yet another missed opportunity in 2014 as he let slip a three-shot lead before failing to convert a ten-foot eagle putt for his second win in the event in three years after hitting a majestic second to that 72nd hole.
By then, the event had lost Tiger Woods after the world No 1 withdrew following just 13 holes in his final round citing back trouble.
“It is my lower back with spasms,” Woods revealed in a statement. “It started this morning when I was warming up and is the same feeling as The Barclays (the opening event in last year’s Fed Ex Cup).”
Having carded a 65 on Saturday, Woods had headed into the final round with an outside chance of catching McIlroy only to make a horrible start, covering his first six holes in five-over and stumbling out in 40.
His premature exit followed disappointing displays in his two previous 2014 outings - in the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego and Dubai Desert Classic - and has cast doubt on his participation in this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral. “It is going to take treatment every day,” he acknowledged in that statement.
Already lacking form, fitness concerns are the last thing Woods needs with The Masters just over a month away and the clock ticking on his bid to topple Jack Nicklaus as the game’s greatest player.
McIlroy, who had withdrawn from the same event himself in the second round 12 months ago, took a two-shot lead over Henley into the final 18 holes.
The Northern Irishman went three clear after an early birdie at the third and, at that stage, looked a good bet to go on and repeat his 2012 title triumph.
But, as he then dropped three shots in six holes and, it seemed that no-one wanted to claim the glory in regulation play.
Knox, whose previous best finish had been two nine ninth places in 2012, played remarkably well on the biggest day of his career so far.
Three behind at the start, he birdied two of the first three holes and found most fairways and greens in regulation until running up a double-bogey 6 at the 14th.
It followed his tee shot ending up in pine needles, from where his second hit the grass edge in front of him and ricocheted into the water.
In the circumstances, it was to his credit that the Jacksonville-based Scot recovered from that untimely setback to cover the infamous ‘Bear Trap’ - the final four holes on the Jack Nicklaus-designed course - in level-par.
He shaved the hole with a birdie putt at the 17th then, standing in a four-way tie at the time, made life difficult for himself needing a par to tie for the clubhouse leader on eight-under with Palmer.
But, after going from sand to deep rough to through the back at the par-5, he holed that nine-footer to keep alive his chances of a fairytale victory.
Henley, who’d eagled the 14th on Saturday, holed from off the green for a birdie this time to move level with McIlroy only for the American to then undo that good work by dumping his tee shot in the drink at the 15th.
It was advantage McIlroy again with three to go but it was his turn to find water following a poor fairway bunker shot at the 16th, costing him a double-bogey 6.
The two-times major winner then dropped another shot at the next to fall one behind Palmer, Knox and Henley before producing a flash of genius at the last.
To a pin tucked on the right of the green close to the water, McIlroy hit a majestic high fade to around ten feet but, left with it for the win after playing partner Henley had to settle for a par, he couldn’t hole the putt.
Knox seemed to like his tee shot at the first play-off hole - the 18th - but it was a touch left and found sand, from where he eventually had to settle for a par-5.
The three others were on the fairway but only Henley found the dancefloor with his second and he got down safely in two putts to follow up his 2013 Sony Open success.
“That’s why you play,” declared the champion. “It’s going to take a long time for this (win) to sink in.”
For McIlroy, it’s turning into a season of what might have been after seeing golden opportunities slip from his grasp now in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and now here.
“I was fortunate that I was in the play-off,” he admitted afterwards. “I didn’t play well enough at all down the stretch to win this tournament.”