Rory McIlroy buried his 2013 title drought in the most dramatic fashion at the Australian Open yesterday and said he thought a largely frustrating season might just make him a more complete player.
The Northern Irishman had a brilliant 2012 but a change of equipment and some off-course legal distractions coincided with a slump in form during which he slid slide from No 1 in the world down to No 6.
Yesterday, though, the 24-year-old re-entered the winner’s circle when he birdied the 18th hole to snatch the title away from US Masters champion and home favourite Adam Scott with the final stroke of the tournament.
“I think I’m more experienced, more patient,” he said when asked what he had learnt this year. “Not getting as down on myself or not being as hard on myself because golf is a long career and you can’t have too many highs and lows in terms of emotions.
“You’ve just got to try and keep it on an even keel and I feel like I’ve done a better job of that this year as the months have gone past.
“You know you have to go through the lows,” he added. “And I’m not saying it was a low this year, it’s not like I plummeted off the face of the earth.
“I’m still sixth in the world so it’s not too bad. It’s not the level that I feel like I can play to but I feel I’m getting back there, so it’s very pleasing.”
McIlroy admitted to a little guilt at the manner of his victory, which came when Scott bogeyed the last to give up a one-shot lead in a tournament he had dominated.
Presented with his chance, though, McIlroy showed the nerves of a two-times major champion to drain a 10-foot putt and join the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as winners of the Stonehaven Cup.
“I thought worst-case scenario I’d have a putt for a play-off and then all of a sudden I have a putt for the win. I didn’t want to go extra holes,” he said.
“All I focused on in the putt was my routine. 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.”
After missing out on the US PGA Tour play-offs, McIlroy arrived in Asia and said he immediately felt his game was improving.
He plays one more tournament at Tiger Woods’s World Challenge this week before embarking on his preparations for the 2014 season. “I always said I just wanted to build some momentum for next year and I felt like I was doing that,” he said.
“The perfect scenario would have been a win before the end of the season and thankfully I was able to do that.
“I’ve still got one more tournament left to try and get that second win on the board. That was the only thing that was missing from this little stretch.
“I feel like I played well but just hadn’t quite gotten across the finish line and doing that today was very satisfying but doing it going up against one of the best players in the world right now is probably even better.”
Scott was left “gutted” after the Midas touch deserted him and he blew a chance to cap the best year of his career with a rare Australian “triple crown”.
Everything Scott touched had turned to gold since he arrived back home last month for a four-tournament swing that quickly turned into a triumphant celebration of his becoming the first Australian to win the US Masters.
Huge crowds thronged the courses as he won the Australian PGA in front of his friends and family on the Gold Coast and backed up for the first time in his career with a victory at the Australian Masters the following week.
His third place at the World Cup of Golf helped his country lift the trophy for the fifth time and he headed to the Australian Open bidding to do what only Robert Allenby had done before and win all of his country’s marquee titles in one year.
A course record 10-under-par 62 in his first round at Royal Sydney gave him a three-stroke lead and, playing some brilliant golf, he topped the leaderboard for all but two holes over the rest of the tournament.
Unfortunately, the second of those two holes was the 72nd and final one of the tournament, where his second bogey of the day allowed McIlroy to snatch the Stonehaven Cup from his grasp.
“I just made an error on the last, misjudged the wind and hit too much club into the last, so that’s the way it goes,” he told reporters of his approach that soared over the back of the green to leave a tricky up-and-down that he failed to muster.
“I felt I did everything right. I was concerned about how I was going to hit it today because I haven’t been swinging the club very well for the last two weeks and I played really nicely and the putter didn’t behave itself.
“So it’s just the way golf is. I’m gutted. I felt like I never had a better chance to win the Aussie Open but it was tight the whole back nine. Rory played so good.
“It’s been a great year. Obviously I didn’t want to finish like that (but) I’ll get over this tonight and look forward to a few weeks’ rest and get ready to go next year.”
(Aus unless stated, par 72)
270 Rory McIlroy (NIrl) 69 65 70 66
271 Adam Scott 62 70 68 71
277 John Senden 73 68 70 66
279 Rhein Gibson 71 70 69 69, Bryden Macpherson 71 70 69 69
280 Mark Brown (Nzl) 75 70 66 69, Matthew Jones 68 68 72 72, Jason Day 70 74 66 70
281 Nathan Holman 69 72 68 72
282 Max Mccardle 68 71 69 74, Adam Bland 69 72 70 71, Leigh Mckechnie 73 65 71 73, Ashley Hall 71 71 68 72
283 David McKenzie 66 75 71 71, Brady Watt 68 70 73 72, Alistair Presnell 67 71
74 71, Nick O’Hern 70 72 70 71, James Nitties 70 71 74 68, Stuart Appleby 75 67 67 74
284 Rodney Pampling 75 68 69 72, Mahal Pearce (Nzl) 72 71 71 70, Richard Green 69 66 73 76, Jamie Arnold 72 68 74 70