Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rory McIlroy now and Tiger Woods then

Whether or not Tiger Woods will ever again dominate professional golf is anybody's guess. There was a time, not that long ago, when Woods was so far above the rest that many would take Tiger against the entire "field" in a wager, particularly when it came to major championships. That wasn't such a bad bet. For whatever reasons -- time, age, tougher competition, personal demons, injuries, swing, coach and caddy changes -- take your pick -- few would take that same bet these days. Tiger's still a world-class golfer, but the last few years haven't seen him in the dominant role he once played.

To currently compare Woods and Rory McIlroy might be apples and oranges, but looking back at what Tiger did when he was Rory's age reveals some remarkable similarities.

McIlroy just won the PGA championship for his second major, at the age of 23. Tiger did the same. So did Jack Nicklaus, for that matter. Rory was one month older than Jack, and 4 months younger than Tiger, but close enough.

When Tiger was merely 21 he blitzed the field at the Masters, winning by a whopping 12 strokes, a record.

Rory just blitzed the field at the PGA, winning by 8 strokes, to eclipse the record Jack had held since 1980.

McIlroy has quickly become a crowd favorite, as Woods once did. To be sure, Tiger still has his legions of fans many years later. As McIlroy was walking the 18th fairway, about to close out the 2012 PGA championship in grand fashion, the gallery was chanting his name. RO-RY. RO-RY. RO-RY. Pretty impressive for a kid that wasn't even playing on his own continent, let alone in his own country.

Whether or not the current competition is tougher than it was in Tiger's hey-day is debatable, but just the fact that up until McIlroy won the PGA, the previous 16 major tournaments had all been won by different golfers certainly speaks of parity. It also seems like more "young guns" are popping up from all over the world every year these days than they did a decade or so ago, but that could be an illusion. Either way, it might be safe to say the competition is certainly a lot tougher than it was back in Nicklaus' prime.

Around the turn of the century, Tiger got on an unbelievable roll, winning majors (and a slew of other tournaments) at an unprecedented rate. He once even held all 4 major championships at the same time. Most had little doubt it was only a matter of time before Tiger would easily eclipse Jack's record of 18 majors. Fast forward a decade and that doesn't look like such a given. Maybe he will. Maybe he won't. It's astonishing to think that over the past year, Woods didn't shoot a single round under par on the weekends at any of the 4 majors. It used to be that on Saturday and Sunday Tiger would shift into overdrive and leave the field in his dust. Of late, he'll often start off well on Thursday and Friday, only to fade on the weekend. It's like everything's backwards.

Like Woods, McIlroy is long off the tee, has every shot in his bag, and is a superb putter. Tiger was "pressure-proof". If anything, the bigger the stage, the better he played. Time will tell if Rory can handle the constant scrutiny he'll find himself under if he remains the #1 golfer in the world for any length of time. Yet having won 2 majors by the same age as Tiger and Jack once did speaks a lot for the young Irishman's nerves in big situations.

It would seem foolish to suggest that McIlroy will ever approach what Woods has done in golf, but back then, who ever thought someone like Tiger would come along and accomplish what he has?

Rory's only beginning, Tiger's not done yet, and there might be a 14 year old kid out there somewhere that will burst upon the scene in a few years to eventually smash ALL the records. You never know. The more likely scenario is that it won't happen. There's too many guys that are really good, and it only takes one of them to get hot while winning any particular tournament to deny any one golfer the chance at chasing all time records. It could be a different guy every tournament, like the last 16 majors, but the cumulative effect works against one player being singularly dominant. Parity may be boring, but for now it's certainly real. It's odd that all the other professional sports leagues strive mightily for that same parity, through the likes of draft picks and salary caps, while golf seems to relish having a "king". Tiger could very well reassume the throne. Then again, perhaps the golf gods will decide it should remain vacant. Or maybe, just maybe, another will come along and seize power.

Interesting, though, how McIlroy was wearing a red shirt on Sunday, as he blew away the field at the PGA. Sound familiar? If he starts wearing black pants and gets a surly caddie --- watch out.


  1. Nothing to really argue with here, John. You pretty much nailed it. But me being me, I have to nitpick one comment. McIlroy is not known as a superb putter. In fact, he has enlisted the aid of Dave Stockton, two time major champion and putting guru to improve his putting. Scary, considering with his less than stellar putting stroke he can get on a roll and seem to make everything he looks at.

    McIlroy seems to be a nice, respectful, well grounded young man. As we often times see, that may or may not be true. But one example of it being true is the red shirt. Rory said that had he been paired with Tiger on Sunday he would not have worn red, in deference to Woods. A fine example of respect trumping gamesmanship.

    As for Tiger's weekend major debacle again, I am beginning to think his public humiliation has affected him more than I thought. It seems to have shaken his confidence to the point where his former personal playground, weekend at a major, has turned into the place where all of the demons suddenly appear and grab his throat.
    I still think he will get all the way back, but maybe not as soon as I thought.

    1. Maybe, Al. But even if he gets back to #1, the majors are a different can of worms. It's been what, 4 years now? I'm thinking if he doesn't break through again fairly soon (the next couple years), not only will Father Time slowly begin to ease into the picture, but he might become his own worst enemy if self doubt joins whatever other demons are lurking between his ears -- if it hasn't already. Who knows? The man may be a lot of things, but he's human. How many years and times in a row coming up empty can he go before something in his mind starts whispering he can't do it anymore? Just a thought. Have a good one.