By Ron Patey

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland gave himself an early birthday present at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play in San Francisco on Sunday. The world’s top-ranked player wrapped up the title with a 4&2 victory over big-hitting Gary Woodland of the United States. McIlroy, who turned 26 yesterday, never allowed Woodland to gain the upper hand at TPC Harding Park. Winning holes four through seven, he raced to the lead and survived Woodland’s spirited comeback attempt.

The American picked up wins at 11 and 12, but the push to get even stalled after that. Woodland didn’t drop a make-able putt on hole 13 and triple-putted the next hole to leave him in a three-hole deficit, from which he didn’t recover. McIlroy is now the second player in WGC Match Play history to win as the top seed. The victory gives him 10 PGA Tour wins by the age of 25, putting him with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to accomplish the feat. This is McIlroy’s second worldwide trophy in 2015; he captured the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour in February. Overall, McIlroy owns 17 worldwide career wins, four of which are majors.

In the consolation match for third place, England’s Danny Willett rolled to a 3&2 triumph over American stalwart and recent RBC Heritage champion Jim Furyk. Willett had lost to Woodland 3&2, while Furyk had lost to McIlroy, who slammed the door on their match like one would expect the top-ranked player in the world could. He stuffed an approach tight and made birdie at 17, followed by a 40-something-foot eagle putt at 18 to win one-up.

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Next On The Tee: The Players Championship

What’s considered to be the tour’s fifth major sets up as a possible “where-were-you-when” moment for golf fans, who might just witness the official launch of the PGA Tour’s next era. If McIlroy and second-ranked Jordan Spieth battle it out in the final group on Sunday, then the seismic shift will be complete. Both players are among the game’s top superstars. And both managed superb finishes on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass last year: Spieth went T4, and McIlroy closed a shot behind at T6.

The Players Championship field features the PGA’s top 50 ranked players. McIlroy and Spieth are likely to be on high alert for the sizzling Justin Rose of England as well as playing-well position players Louie Oosthuizen of South Africa and Paul Casey, also of England. Rose followed his second-place Masters finish by winning the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Oosthuizen, who is over his back injury, showed well at the Match Play, taking out Americans Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler before losing to 4&2 to Furyk.

Tiger Woods heads for The Players Championship out of his relationship with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and in a better frame of mind for golf. Woods showed well at The Masters (T17), even though he entered the tournament following a prolonged break to conquer the chipping yips that plagued him earlier in the season. Woods also played through a wrist injury he picked up along the way on Sunday at Augusta.

The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course plays 7,215 yards long and is a par 72.

Favorites: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen, Paul Casey

Players To Watch: Tiger Woods, Martin Kaymer (last year’s champion), Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, Miguel Angel Jimenez

(Bradley and Jimenez got into a nose-to-nose verbal sparring session over a ruling at the Match Play. Round two?)

Ron Patey covered the golf industry for 21 years as a special sections editor with Sun Media. During the past five years, Patey has been a golf writer for Examiner.com.

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