He Ain’t “Tiger” McIlroy Just Yet

Posted: June 21, 2011 in golf, sports
Tags: , , , , , ,

It was July 16, 2005 and I was standing near the 18th green on the Old Course at St. Andrews. It was late afternoon of the first round of the British Open. Strolling up the fairway was a curly mop of hair atop a smallish body 16 years young.

“Yore lookin’ at the next Tiger,” a man standing near me said in a thick Scottish accent to anyone who cared. “That’s Rory McIlroy.”

I rolled my eyes and politely nodded.

Five years and 11 months later a lot of people are calling McIlroy, now 22, the next Tiger. McIlroy won the 111th U.S. Open in record-shattering style. He went lower, 16 under par, than anyone ever in an Open. His victory margin was 8 shots. He led from start to finish. Perhaps more important for McIlroy, he rid himself of the demons who have haunted him since the Masters in April. His final round stroll to pick up a famous Augusta National Golf Club green jacket turned into a nightmare. McIlroy snap-hooked his way to a closing 80 and disappeared from the leader board long before Charl Schwartzel sank his winning putt.

The big question then was how would the young lad from Northern Ireland respond to the humiliation of his Masters collapse? McIlroy insisted he was okay; insisted he’d learn from his bad performance; insisted there were many things in the world worse than losing a golf tournament, even the Masters.

I rolled my eyes and politely nodded.

Now even the most cynical among us must marvel at McIlroy’s talent and maturity. But I still suggest we hold off calling McIlroy is next Tiger . . . or next Jack Nicklaus . . . or the next Lee Trevino . . . or the next Tom Watson . . . or the next Nick Faldo. You get the point, right?

What is clear is McIlroy is a wonderful golf talent with an impressive past and limitless potential. Even before capturing his first major championship, he had won as a teenager on the European Tour and won a significant PGA Tour tournament, the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, before he was legally old enough to drink alcohol in the USA. He entered the Open ranked in the top 10 in the world and having third place finishes in the British Open and PGA Championship. And there was his impressive 54-hole Masters performance.

His Open victory was obviously impressive, but be careful placing it among the handful of greatest major championship performance ever. Numbers do lie sometimes and this is clearly a case where the numbers are at least a bit misleading.

The obvious comparison is Woods’ Open victory in 2000 at Pebble Beach. Tiger’s performance wins by a landslide.

Tiger was an Open record 12 under (272) on the par-71 Pebble layout and won by a record 15 shots. No one else broke par. Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied for second at 3 over par.

McIlroy was 16 under at Congressional, 8 ahead of Aussie Jason Day. Day’s 8 under would have won nine of the last 10 Opens and would have tied Jim Furyk’s winning score in ’03 at Olympia Fields near Chicago. In all, 20 golfers bettered par and two matched par at Congressional. Only using the 10 Opens between Tiger’s victory at Pebble and McIlroy’s at Congressional, two Open champions won with plus-5 totals; two won at even par. In Tiger’s epic playoff victory over Rocco Mediate in ’08 at Torrey Pines, no one beat par other than those two and they finished 72 holes at 1 under. The last 10 Open champs were a COMBINED 14 under.

Clearly, Congressional was not a typical U.S. Open course this year. It wasn’t even like previous Open set-ups at Congressional. Els was 4 under when he won at Congressional in ’97 and Ken Venturi was 2 under in ’64). The reasons Congressional played easier are not secrets. In 2005 when Mike Davis, who’s now the USGA executive director, was put in charge of course set-up, the USGA made a decision to make Open courses more playable. Difficult, you understand, but more playable. The USGA brass understood the decision could lead to what happened this year because the margin or effort was much smaller. Better to err on the side where birdies were possible than on the side where the world’s best players were repeatedly embarrassed. Last week unexpected rain softened the greens, and that always leads to lower scores.

Strangely, while Congressional played easy by Open standards, the list of top players who missed the 36-hole cut was impressive. That list included K.J. Choi, Paul Casey, Nick Watney, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, Angel Cabrera, Jim Furyk, Geoff Oglivy, David Toms, Ricky Fowler, Ian Poulter and Robert Allenby.

My advice is to hold off putting McIlroy in the rare air of golf’s all-time greatest players. Ignore the gushing of Rory’s Euro mates such as Graeme McDowell and Paddy Harrington who threw out such comments as “greatest ever” in the excitement of the moment. Ignore the TV commentators who raved about Rory’s perfect swing as if he’d just found. Ignore David Feherty, period.

Give McIlroy his due and sit back and enjoy watching him go forward. Indeed, professional golf looks as if it’s about to take a great ride with McIlroy and a bunch of young players leading the way. Don’t ignore the fact that golf’s four majors are currently held by players all under 30.

What’s the rush to put every athlete in some historical perspective? I understand the world of 24-hour cable television and around-the-clock talk radio, but they are poor excuses for debates about how everyone, every performance and every team fit into the grand scheme of things, past, present and future.

We know McIlroy has game. We know McIlroy loves golf. We know he already has acquired enough wealth for several lifetimes. We also know he is not obsessed Tiger-like with rewriting golf’s record book. We know he loves a lifestyle that allows him to enjoy life to the upmost with family and friends and a pint of Irish ale. We know he seems content with his swing and his 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame and isn’t likely to start spending hours in the gym pumping iron and hours on the range rebuilding his swing.

Indeed, Rory just might be too nice and too content to become the next Tiger. Or Jack. He might continue to enjoy life so much he “forgets” to grind and work on improving his craft. He might find new mountains to climb. He might buy an island and spend his days playing in the sand.

He might simply continue to play golf for the love of the game and capture an occasional victory. He might be so talented and happy he wins another major or two. Or maybe 13 and catch Tiger. Or maybe 17 and catch Nicklaus.

He’s 22 years old and it’s a good bet he doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring but he’s pretty sure he’s going enjoy it. I can’t imagine him thinking yet about the British Open, July 14-17 at Royal St. George’s in England. If I had to guess who he’ll remind us of one day I’d say of Arnold Palmer — a great champion, an even better guy and a man who has truly enjoyed life.



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