It didn’t take long for Rory McIlroy to start drawing comparisons to Tiger Woods, in fact the suggestions began before he even hoisted the U.S. Open trophy this weekend at Congressional.
McIlroy’s age, his boyish charm and his dominant performance on the grand stage, all offered a trip down the memory lane Tiger Woods paved in the 1990s.
The fun of comparing Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy only goes so far. Let’s be honest, McIlroy can’t hold Tiger’s jock yet. But with that said, there is real cause for excitement.
McIlroy didn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve known about this phenom for years, have watched him grow up and improve and contend and now finally break through. Over the past several majors, he’s shown flashes of brilliance, but could never piece together four rounds good enough to raise one of the four most prized trophies in golf. At Congressional, he didn’t just emerge as a champion. He put his stamp on the event with one of the most dominant performances in U.S. Open history (paling in comparison to Woods’ 15-shot triumph, but cut of the same cloth).
More than anything, McIlroy has begun to capture the imagination the way Woods did a decade and a half ago, when Tiger was lapping the Masters field at the age of 21 and injecting much-needed energy into the sport. The celebration of Woods’ 1997 Augusta victory was less about that weekend and more about what laid ahead, both for this prodigy who’d been on our radar for years, and for what it would mean for golf itself.
That’s where we stand again today. It’s less about Rory’s resume and far more about his potential. Suddenly there’s added juice, Tiger has his upstart, the one clear successor. One who has charisma, spunk, and a Richie Cunningham persona that must make his parents swell with pride as he conducts interviews and interacts with the public. Thankfully, he hasn’t crossed the line into Eddie Haskell territory that Phil Mickelson took up residence in years ago.
Heading into the week, it was hard to imagine any story line taking this year’s U.S. Open from the sports pages onto the front pages, yet McIlroy did just that. Breaking records, warming hearts and stirring imaginations, his victory landed on the cover of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, spots previously reserved for one Tiger Woods.
McIlroy’s got the future on his side and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the end creeping up on Woods. It’s not a great rivalry yet. It might not ever become one. But right now, as Tiger Woods, the man who has owned golf for the better part of 20 years, is at the low-point in his career, it’s impossible to ignore the 22-year-old who’s been knocking on the door of greatness and has taken a major step in that direction.
It’s dramatic and it’s a great story line.
It’s just what golf needed.
The Similarities are Eerie
Since we’re playing the Rory vs. Tiger game, some fun video has surfaced of McIlroy as a 9-year-old on a Northern Irish TV program called “Kelly Show” in the wake of winning an under-10 tournament. The young Rory tells the host that he practices by chipping golf balls into his mom’s washing machine. After some Tiger-like ball-wedge juggling, they bring out the washing machine and McIlroy (clad in a Tiger-like Nike shirt) takes aim.
Of course, thinking of a pre-pubescent future major champion on TV, you’re thinking this footage has to be really old. Until you realize that McIlroy is so young today that this clip is from 1999.
Compare Rory at nine to Tiger at two with Mike Douglas. Whew, if Tiger wasn’t feeling old watching Rory put on a Woods-like dominant performance this weekend, maybe he will watching these clips.
Westwood’s Loser Label Starting to Stick
Watching the final round at Congressional, there wasn’t even an ounce of surprise that Lee Westwood was among the second-flight leaders. He always seems to be right there, but he’s never in the winner’s circle when it matters. His victories are reserved for PGA Tour stops like the St. Jude, and remote locations like the Indonesia Masters.
I don’t want to pick on Westwood, but for a guy who’s never shy about sharing his opinion, looking down his nose at events such as The Players Championship and the PGA Tour as a whole, it would nice to see him back it up even one time in a big spot. He’s become golf’s poster boy compiler, always in the mix, but never raising his game to match the biggest stage. Much like McIlroy’s near misses of the past year, Westwood wore that same crown with four top-three finishes in a four-major span in 2009-2010. But what once felt like “he’s about to break through, and then you better watch out, he’ll be the next Mickelson who just needed to solve his Sunday demons before posting multiple majors” has been replaced with resignation that he will go down the Colin Montgomerie of his generation.
Blame Weather, Not Congressional
Congressional and the USGA took a lot of heat this year as scores of players went low. It wasn’t the typical U.S. Open where par is heavily defended. But while I wasn’t excited about this year’s venue heading into the tournament, it was Mother Nature to blame for the low scores, not Mike Davis. The pre-tournament heat wave meant they couldn’t get the rough ultra thick, and the Open-week rain left the fairways soft and forgiving, and the greens far more receptive than we normally see at a U.S. Open.
It did stand out, however that distance is little deterrent to scoring for these guys. Par fours of 500-plus yards are nothing when they all seem to hit it 350 off the tee. And even if they’ve got 200 yards into a green, they’re playing 6- and 7-irons. I’m not on the “roll back the ball” soapbox. I’d prefer to see them narrow the fairways, tighten the targets into the greens, and penalize misses more harshly. And that stands regardless of the host course.