By Steve Elling
MARANA, Ariz. -- All of a sudden, as he looked at the scoreboard, his future flashed before him.
OK, so he might not get there this week, but the possibility certainly exists, thanks to the first-round results at the Accenture Match Play Championship.
World No. 2 Rory McIlroy was on the course Wednesday afternoon when he saw a leaderboard which noted that world No. 1 Luke Donald had been upset in the opening round. That creates the very real possibility that, with a victory tis week, the 22-year-old U.S. Open champ could ascend to the rankings top spot with a victory Sunday.
God bless McIlroy, who freely admitted that he will use the ranking as a motivational carrot the rest of the way -- and there are another five matches he must win -- to climb to the highest rung in the game. Many players would not allow themselves to think about it, much less discuss it, openly.
Donald was drilled by Ernie Els, 5 and 4, while McIlroy won his match, 2 up, against a surprisingly resilient George Coetzee.
You gotta love anybody who begins a sentence in this overly-protective, mind-games era with the words, "to be honest." Which is exactly what McIlroy did when I asked him about becoming numero uno.
"To be honest, I came in here yesterday and talked about if I play well and just win matches, that will take care of itself," he said. "But obviously, it's another incentive waking up each morning and knowing that if you win your match at the end of that day, at the end of the week you could be world No. 1.
"I saw the result on one of the scoreboards on No. 17, I think. So, yeah, we'll see what happens. I have to get through a lot of matches before that, but it definitely gives me an added incentive this week."
McIlroy, who rejoined the PGA Tour for 2012, could become the fourth player in a year to climb to the top spot, joining Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Donald.
We'll see how McIlroy feels if the media asks him about the No. 1 ranking for the next four days in succession, but for now, he doesn't believe it will be a distration. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"I think, if anything, it gives you just a little bit of extra motivation, especially if you find yourself maybe a couple down through five or six holes that you say to yourself, come on, you've got to win this thing or you've got to win this match to give yourself a chance [at No. 1], at least.
"So in that way you can use it to your advantage, as well."