McIlroy takes command at WGC-Bridgestone

Rory McIlroy during Sunday's final round of the 2014 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on PGA Tour.

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AKRON, Ohio – So when the clouds parted, the rain stopped, and the ambulance chase of Tiger Woods’ stunning departure after nine holes (back pain) was completed, the World Golf Championship stage at Firestone Country Club was cleared so the stars could be aligned and the numbers appropriated to their proper place.

Rory McIlroy first, because it’s back to being his world.

Sergio Garcia second, because … well, that appears to be where he’s stuck in this summer of superb, but not-quite-good-enough golf.

Unable to quite erase a seven-shot deficit and catch McIlroy in the final round of the Open Championship a few weeks ago, Garcia was equally incapable when it came to holding his three-stroke, 54-hole cushion over the thunderous 25-year-old from Northern Ireland at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. In fact, never, perhaps, has such a deficit evaporated so quickly as it did in Sunday’s humidity that arrived in the wake of heavy morning rain.

Talk about a 1-2-3-4 punch: McIlroy knocked down birdie putts of 4, 26, and 8 feet at the first three holes, respectively, and gladly accepted a bogey by Garcia at the third. So when they arrived at the fourth tee the picture had been turned upside down.

McIlroy at 14 under, led Garcia by one.

“It was a little bit of a shame,” Garcia said.

We respectfully disagree. More accurately, it was a predictable outcome.

That’s not meant as an indictment of the precocious Spaniard, who is in the midst of the best stretch of golf in his 16-year career. But having gone 68-61-67 to seize his lead over McIlroy, Garcia might have actually been an underdog to start the final round. That’s a testament to how utterly flawlessly McIlroy appears to be playing these days and the explosive start was indicative of what he’s been throwing down all summer.

When he stuffed his tee shot to 7 feet at the 211-yard fifth hole, McIlroy had his fourth birdie, a two-stroke lead, and the blueprint poured to a closing 4-under 66. It translated into 15-under 265 which left him exactly where he was a few weeks ago in Hoylake, England – two strokes clear of Garcia (71) at tournament’s end.

Links or velcro turf.

Fish ’n chips or midwest beef.

Pounds or dollars.

Coolish seaside air or insufferable humidity.

None of it matters; all of it is merely interchangeable backdrop to what has become the PGA Tour’s signature story for this summer of 2014. McIlroy is Sir Edmund Hillary, Garcia Tensing Norgay. McIlroy is Paul Simon, Garcia Art Garfunkle. McIlroy is David Letterman, Garcia Paul Shaffer. McIlroy is Elton John, Garcia Bernie Taupin.

They are a wonderful duo and if Paul McGinley is so inclined to pair them at Gleneagles in six weeks, what a joy it would be to see McIlroy and Garcia play in tandem at the Ryder Cup. But so long as these PGA Tour tournaments are contested as they are – individual stroke-play affairs – a McIlroy-Garcia pairing offers little suspense.

McIlroy rules, simply in a zone to himself these days, and Garcia should take no offense, nor feel alone. He’s got plenty of company, because others are powerless when it comes to curtailing this Holywood story. Victorious three times in six tournaments since he announced the breakup of his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki, and one can read into that what one wants, McIlroy is flexing his muscles on the biggest stages. His stash of eight PGA Tour wins includes three majors, two FedEx Cup playoffs, and a World Golf Championship.

Want more? McIlroy returns to No. 1 in the world, his fifth visit there, and first since March 24, 2013.

Needing to win to become top-ranked, McIlroy got in position to do his part by doing what he had done Friday, too. Birdies at each of the first three holes. But needing the present No. 1, Adam Scott, to finish outside the top five? Well, that was out of McIlroy’s hands, though Scott (71) cooperated with a sloppy back nine and finished in a share of eighth to fall to No. 2.

“That sounds great, it really does,” McIlroy said, when introduced at his press conference as No. 1 in the world.

Less exotic is being runner-up, but that is where Garcia is presently stuck, having finished second in each of his last three starts – at the U.S. Open, Open Championship, and Bridgestone.

“Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get it,” Garcia said. “Obviously, I hit a couple bad putts early on and lost a bit of confidence.”

Having made 16 birdies in three days, the Spaniard made just one in soggy conditions. It came at the ninth hole, a 15-footer, and pulled him even – but only until McIlroy assumed command at the 11th, doing it in a manner the frames his present dominance.

“Mentally, I’m really sharp,” McIlroy said.

He’s also overpowering with the driver as his 318-yard blast at 11 showed. It left him just 93 yards, a shot he stuck to 8 feet and when he made that he was in the lead by one. When the lead grew to two at the 15th (Garcia short-sided himself and made bogey) it was all but over, especially with the aggressive McIlroy keeping the gas on – he drove it 292 and made par at 16, 319 yards and made par at 17, 328 yards to par 18.

“It was nice to watch, the way he was hitting the ball,” Garcia said, and indeed it was. McIlroy in form is a beautiful view, such a blend of power (he led the field in driving distance average, 334.8), precision (he tied for most greens hit, 57), and touch (seventh in strokes gained putting) that you hate to spread the word to his competitors that he seems determined to maintain the pace.

“That’s the most pleasing thing about this week, not dwelling on what happened at Hoylake. Keep moving forward,” McIlroy said, his week of 21 birdies, four bogeys, and one double having earned him $1.53m in addition to the penthouse of the world order.

“That’s what I have to do after this, as well. I’ll have a good time tonight. I’ll celebrate with my dad (and manager and caddie), but I’ve go a big tournament next week and one that I desperately want to win.”

If that sounds like everyone is playing for second at Valhalla, Garcia is on notice. His position is in jeopardy.

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