Celtic cub's irresistible force can fill power vacuum left by Tiger's demise
Published 26/06/2011 | 05:00
As the triumphal cavalcade which was Rory McIlroy's fourth round at the US Open proceeded through the Congressional Country Club this day last week, the thought occurred that golf is a very easy game. All you have to do is hit a tee-shot onto those wide welcoming fairways and follow up with a second on to greens so big you could hardly miss them. Two putts or maybe just one and the job is finished. No big deal.
Of course golf isn't really a simple game, it's one which puts its devotees through decades of enjoyable torment as they endeavour to make incremental improvements in high handicaps. And if you want to see the small margins for error available to even the best professionals, look no further than the last round McIlroy played in a Major before he approached the first tee in Bethesda, Maryland.
But last Sunday, and Saturday, and Friday, and Thursday, the young man from Holywood made golf look so simple I had the same feeling as when Maradona single-handedly dismantled the England defence for the wonder goal whose 25th anniversary occurred last week, Federer was playing at his very peak in 2006 and 2007 and Jonny Sexton took charge in the Heineken Cup final. Namely that here was someone who had worked out his chosen sport and knew exactly how to play it. At moments like that it's as though the player is a mystic who has unearthed a Kabbalistic code which explains the very meaning of the game he plays.
The most striking thing about McIlroy at his best is his facility. Facility and talent are not quite the same things. Mozart and Beethoven were both geniuses but whereas the latter's music seems to have been wrested from him after an epic struggle, the former gives the impression that he knocked it off at his ease. There's the same difference between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Cary Grant and Robert De Niro and, most relevant to McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. The latters in those three couplings made you admire them for the obvious hard work they were putting in, for all their victories cost them in blood, sweat and tears. Louis, Cary and Tiger, on the other hand, made their most extraordinary feats look as natural and easy as breathing.
So it was with McIlroy. He performs miracles with the sangfroid of a father playing crazy golf with his kids at Leisureland. The Tiger comparisons have been there since he turned pro but they have become irresistible since a first Major win which bore such a close resemblance to Tiger's debut victory it looked like a cover version. Tiger was 21 when he won the US Masters in 1997, McIlroy was 22 when he won the US Open last week, but he'd only missed being 21 by a month and 15 days. The only golfer younger than him to win a Major in the modern era is Woods. Tiger blew the field away and won by 12 shots. McIlroy led all the way and won by 8. Tiger's -18 total was a US Masters record. McIlroy's -16 was a US Open record. Apart from Tiger, only four players in the modern era have shot a better total against par in a Major. Don't look ahead. Give yourself a prize if you get more than one of them.
(Jack Nicklaus in the 1965 Masters, Ray Floyd in the 1976 Masters, Steve Elkington in the 1995 PGA Championship and Bob May in the same tournament five years later, he lost to Tiger in a play-off). You have to go back to that Floyd performance for the last time a golfer other than Tiger won a Major by eight shots or more, Floyd finishing eight clear of Ben Crenshaw on that occasion.
The performance itself was one for the ages. But add in McIlroy's youth and it becomes utterly extraordinary. You can get carried away with the Tiger comparisons; excited chat about McIlroy's chances of breaking Jack Nicklaus's record 18 Majors is laughable at this stage when you consider that only the Bear, the Tiger and Walter Hagen, from 1914-1929, even reached double figures.
Yet it's a measure of McIlroy's potential that he is the only golfer for whom the Woods comparison does not seem wholly ridiculous. Sergio Garcia was once trumpeted as a potential heir to the throne but that billing had more hype than reality to it. At the age of 22 Garcia's best placing in a Major was a fourth in the US Open. At the age of 31 he has yet to win one. McIlroy had not only broken his duck but done so in almost unprecedented fashion. If we hadn't seen Tiger, we'd never have seen a young golfer as talented as McIlroy.
We may well be on the cusp of a golden era in golf. Because, for the first time ever, the four reigning Major champions are all in their twenties. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel is 26, the same age as PGA champion, and world number three Martin Kaymer, while British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen is 28. And then there's Australian prodigy Jason Day who's finished second this year in both the Masters and the US Open. Yet McIlroy is clearly primus inter pares and is the only one you can foresee possibly dominating the game in the coming years.
The decline of Woods has left a power vacuum in golf. With all due respect to Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, neither of them really looked like a world number one during their brief spells in the position. The current incumbent Luke Donald, whose most recent Major placings read 43rd, missed the cut, 47th, 11th, missed the cut, 4th, 45th, certainly doesn't. (In the same period McIlroy had three thirds in addition to his US Open triumph). The game needs McIlroy to become the kind of undisputed number one Woods was for so long. And then ideally Kaymer and Day to rise to the challenge and give golf something like the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic battle at the top of men's tennis.
Great things have been predicted for McIlroy ever since he was the teenage sensation who topped the world amateur rankings at the age of 17. So it's easy to regard his astounding progress in the senior ranks as somehow inevitable. But that's not the case. Rickie Fowler, who's just a few months older than McIlroy and was an even more sensational amateur, is number 50 in the world at present. He will probably come through but not at anything like the rapid pace of McIlroy. Another teenage wonder boy peer of McIlroy's, Jamie Lovemark, only got his PGA card this year and has withdrawn from the tour after a catastrophic run of form.
The hottest prospect of all, New Zealand's Danny Lee, who at the age of 18, spent 34 weeks as world amateur number one to McIlroy's one week, still hasn't secured a PGA card. Okay, he's only 20 but by the time McIlroy was that age the Ulster man was world number nine. In terms of precocity, the only appropriate comparison is, yet again, with Eldrick Tont Woods.
Which brings us to the question of staying power. Thirty five years ago another 22-year-old won the US Open. Jerry Pate beat Tom Weiskopf and Al Geiberger by two strokes and that was pretty much all she wrote for the big man from Otis Redding's home town of Macon, Georgia. John Daly won the PGA Championship at 25 and never finished better than 15th in a Major after he reached 30. Injury did for Pate and lunacy for Daly but while McIlroy is unlikely to be unhorsed by the latter, the former to some extent is in the lap of the gods. Yet perhaps his greatest danger may come from the very media which has been so keen to canonise him this week. Tiger's downfall will have let his heir apparent know that from now on he has no right to a private life. This may be a somewhat daunting prospect for a man in his early twenties. Then again all he has to do to keep the press
onside is to never ever offend against the moral tenets of the tabloid newspaper industry for the rest of his playing career. It should be a cinch.
But right now tomorrow belongs to Rory McIlroy. And part of the huge excitement we felt in watching him last week was because we were seeing not just the actual tournament he was winning but everything he might win in the future.
You could say that last week's extraordinary victory is the crowning glory of a remarkable period for Irish golf. We've now won five out of the last 16 Majors, the USA are level with us and South Africa, with two, is the only other country with multiple wins. England still waits for a first Major since Nick Faldo's Masters win in 1996.
It turns out that we're better at golf than we are at anything else. And McIlroy is the best of all.
But last Sunday wasn't a crowning glory. Not at all. You see, there is more to come. Exactly how much ultimately depends on nobody but Rory McIlroy. He is the master of his fate, the captain of his soul.
As they used to say about Jack Nicholson, "when he's having a good day he knows he's the best. And when he's having a bad day, he knows he'd be the best if he was having a good day."
We're going to have some fun following this lad.
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