McIlroy must tread carefully in Tiger Woods' footsteps
Fortunes can change very quickly for the gifted and famous, writes Kevin Mitchell
Tomorrow night in a New York television studio Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods will sit down with the chat show host Jimmy Fallon and, if they stick to the conventions of their sport and the meagre demands of the genre, they will try to make light of an uncomfortable truth: their rivalry is over.
In their leather chairs, smiling for a prime-time audience and the shared sponsor who facilitated the gig, they will not be talking as equals but they will say all the right things.
Expect no explosions. Woods is not going to say he is done with golf. McIlroy is going to praise him as the greatest player of his generation - and Tiger will flash his perfect teeth in appreciation. It will be Fallon's task to extract something of interest from two guests determined to play straight down the middle of the fairway.
However, while they have experienced similar personal angst and embarrassment, their goals could hardly be more different. Woods is trying to save his legacy; McIlroy is well on the way to establishing his. Tiger has 14 Majors, the last of them six years ago. Rory has four, most recently in the US PGA. The American is 38 with a back as fragile as tissue paper; the Irishman is 25 and loving his 6lbs of recently acquired muscle.
When McIlroy lit up the Sunday night darkness with a dramatic late charge to win the US PGA championship in Kentucky last Sunday, CBS attracted its biggest finishing audience for the event since 2009 - when Woods fell short as he tried for a 15th major. The chances of his being in that position again diminish by each tournament and injury crisis.
McIlroy could hardly be more gilded right now; the most popular golfer in the game, the world No 1 on an exhilarating roll, with another 'mystery blonde' on his case already, all recent woes, commercial and romantic, forgotten.
But during the ad breaks tomorrow night, Tiger might lean over to Rory and remind him how quickly fortunes shift for the famous.
When Woods announced on his website on Wednesday that he was withdrawing from the US Ryder Cup team to play at Gleneagles next month because of his lingering back injury, one could almost hear the sigh of relief from Tom Watson. The US team captain had been spared the chore of having to tell the player whose claims to greatness are indisputable but locked in the past that he would not be going to Scotland.
A week earlier there was no escaping the TV images of Woods hobbling away from the US PGA clutching his troublesome back. But sympathy has been scarce. Bill Dwyre, the tough-talking columnist on the 'Los Angeles Times', observed: "Woods is hurt. He's a mess. The big issue now, every time he plays, is not whether he will win but whether he will make the cut. When are we going to stop thinking this is the same Tiger Woods who gutted out his last major title at Torrey Pines in 2008? It isn't."
McIlroy has yet to drive a car into a tree after midnight but he will want to forget 2013 in a hurry. He was embroiled in a legal row with his former agents, he walked off the course in the middle of the Honda Classic in March (claiming he had a toothache) and he heeded the advice of Jack Nicklaus (married 54 years but with no history of personal counselling) that marriage might be good for him. So Rory proposed to Caroline Wozniacki.
And, a few days after the wedding invitations went out in May, he declared their relationship over. Thanks Jack. Adios Wozza.
As Wozniacki went about rebuilding her life and her tennis after the split, there was little doubt where public sympathy resided and it was not with the free-swinging golfer. That, now, would seem to be a diversion that has run its course. All is well. Wozniacki - whose public smile seems permanent, whatever her private tears - played well in Cincinnati and will again be a threat at the upcoming US Open.
Rory? He still has the tabloids on his case, and is still flirting with danger. There were pictures and an accompanying video clip in the 'Irish Mirror' on Friday of "a blonde girl doing her best to get Rory McIlroy's attention", while he was belting the ball down the fairway in Valhalla. And that pretty much encapsulates the Irishman's life: from one blonde to the next, on to Valhalla and the victory podium. It would seem his is one endless summer of honey and birdies.
"I think what happened has been for the better in terms of my golf," he told ESPN after his triumph in Louisville. "I've put a bit more time into it and it has refocused me. I mean, what else do I have to do now? I go to the golf course, I go to the gym and it's just my life at the minute."
Sorry to have been such a burden, Wozniacki might have been thinking on hearing that. But it is easy to judge. For years we have all judged Woods.
It is what human beings do. Now it is McIlroy's turn. If he gets to Tiger's age with his private life spotless and his golf swing intact, he will be doing mighty well.
Sunday Indo Sport
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