Rory McIlroy aims to seal the deal

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- That was some atmosphere at PGA National on Saturday afternoon, a party interrupted by occasional golf shots and clever -- or not so clever -- shouts of encouragement to players at the Honda Classic.

This is what Tiger Woods endures most weeks he plays, a veritable circus at each and every hole. Other players don't necessarily see the same reaction, although at the Honda Classic, as the day wears on and the sun gets warmer and the beverages flow ... well, you know.

Rory McIlroy is now getting that kind of treatment. He is the game's next superstar, a huge talent ready to burst out and become No. 1 in the world. He has a major championship to his name, and though he lacks significant tournament hardware, the general feeling in the game is that such a haul is inevitable.

PGA Tour veteran Dicky Pride, 44, was paired with McIlroy on Saturday during the third round and could barely contain his admiration. The one-time tour winner noted that his name has elicited a fair amount of chanting and smart-aleck remarks from galleries over the years, so he was impressed by the composure McIlroy kept throughout a wild day.

"He seems unflappable,'' Pride said. "He had guys yelling a lot. He takes it in stride and keeps going.''

McIlroy is a Sunday final round away from becoming No. 1 in the world at age 22. Woods was 21 when he got there in 1997 and there has not been a young talent since with such potential. A 4-under-par 66 put McIlroy atop the leaderboard by two strokes over rookie Harris English and veteran Tom Gillis.

But nothing is assured in golf. We've seen a bunch of 54-hole leads blown this year on the PGA Tour. McIlroy himself coughed up a four-stroke advantage last year at the Masters, where he shot 80 and ended up tied for 15th. He is 2-for-5 with 54-hole leads as a pro on the PGA and European tours combined.

Two months after the Masters, McIlroy was winning the U.S. Open by eight shots. He also went on to win the Hong Kong Open on the European Tour later in 2011.

And he's been playing at an incredibly high level for months. Going back to the PGA Championship, where he suffered a first-round wrist injury and did well to make the cut, McIlroy has been out of the top five just one time, and that was a tie for 11th at December's Dubai World Championship, where he was ill.

AP Photo/Scott A. Miller

Since the 2011 PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy has finished no worse than 11th in his last 10 worldwide starts.

This year he's been second in Abu Dhabi, fifth in Dubai and second last week at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he lost to Hunter Mahan in the final with a chance to go to No. 1 in the world rankings.

A lackluster result this week would have gotten a pass, given the exhausting nature of match play, but here is McIlroy again with the top ranking at stake.

"I definitely feel like I need to put it out of my mind tomorrow,'' McIlroy said of trying to become No. 1. "I need to focus on just trying to win this golf tournament. It might be a little bit difficult. It might creep in every now and again, but if you can keep it out for the majority of the time, I think it's the best thing to do.''

McIlroy is on a nice run at the moment. He's made just four bogeys this week. He played the vaunted Bear Trap -- the tough 15th, 16th and 17th holes -- in nine strokes Saturday when a year ago he went through there in 16 during the third round, making double bogeys at each hole.

"It's really obvious why he won a U.S. Open,'' Pride said. "He hits it long, he hits it straight, he hits it solid. He has a wonderful short game ... He's just a good player. I don't care what age you are, he can play. You're also dating me. I'm 22 years older than him ... When I was 20, I was walking on at Alabama for the second time. I'd say he's poised.''

Woods had played only one competitive round with McIlroy before they were grouped together in Abu Dhabi, where they even played a practice round together.

"He's a great kid, and just an unbelievable talent, but just a really nice kid to be around,'' Woods said there. "He really understands the game. He's growing. He's so young, he's only 22. He's got a major championship behind him. You can see he's learning.

"He's not afraid to try shots, which is really cool to see, and just a matter of time before he just gains more knowledge. That's all it's going to take, just more experience, just years on tour and getting the right scheduling, getting the right preparations, the whole thing. That's just going to take a little bit of time. But he's on the right track, you can definitely see that.''

Just to highlight how young McIlroy is ... he'll be grouped Sunday with Gillis, who is 43, making his 121st PGA Tour start and winless in his career. Then there is English, who is also 22, but just embarking on his pro career after playing in college at the University of Georgia.

"Rory is awesome,'' English said. "I haven't had a chance to meet him yet but I've definitely watched him play the last couple of years. He's got a great game and he deserves it. I think he's the best player in the world right now, hands down, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow ... he's very impressive.''

With poor weather forecast, tournament officials have moved up tee times, which could give McIlroy a break. He won't have to think about the situation as long, as he'll begin play at 10:30 a.m. ET instead of roughly three hours later.

That might also serve to dampen the enthusiastic crowds, which have been of no bother to McIlroy.

"It was unbelievable,'' he said. "Some guy asked me what shampoo I use. Another guy asked me if I had snacks in the bag ... it was a great atmosphere out there. I enjoy playing in front of crowds like that. I think it's great for the fans, and when the players receive it the right way, I think it's good as well.''

Nothing against Luke Donald, the current No. 1 who has had a phenomenal run of success in the past year. But if the Englishman is supplanted by McIlroy, it won't be bad for the game at all.

The Northern Irishman is clearly the future, and it is just a matter of time. Perhaps that time comes Sunday.

As countryman and 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said: "It's only the beginning for the guy.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

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