Monday 19 August 2019

Comment: Rory McIlroy will never be in Tiger's league of greatness


Tiger Woods shakes hands with Rory McIlroy after winning the Tour Championship golf tournament at East Lake
Tiger Woods shakes hands with Rory McIlroy after winning the Tour Championship golf tournament at East Lake
Tiger Woods. Photo: USA Today
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy was the final-round pairing everyone dreamed of and no-one thought they'd see. But, in what was meant to be a duel, the young pretender never landed a blow.

This time last year Woods seemed a figure from the past. There might have been just 13 years between them but Tiger and McIlroy seemed to belong to different eras as much as Woods and Jack Nicklaus did.

It's less than 16 months since Woods was arrested under suspicion of driving under the influence. The infamous mugshot released by police showed a groggy, confused-looking figure. It appeared to complete his life's transformation from sporting icon into a tabloid morality tale.

Tiger's career had been derailed by injury but many insisted his transgressions against the sacred institution of matrimony were at the root of his problems. Race played a part in this. The country club republicans who run golf and are its most visible supporters stateside saw Woods' fall from grace as proof he'd never really belonged.

They kicked him when he was down in the knowledge they'd never have to worry about Tiger again. Corporate sponsors melted treacherously away. These days, America's best known golfer is in the White House, and the moral panic seems bizarre. Woods got no mulligans on account of personal behaviour.

But the fans stayed true. When he had a putt to force a play-off in the Valspar Championship on the night of March 11, the spontaneous outpouring of affection was extraordinary. Golf was major world news again. In that moment it was obvious no golfer had replaced Tiger in the affections of the general public.

That was his first top-five finish in five years. Sixth place in the British Open was followed by second in the USPGA, his best finish in a major since 2009. Coming into the Tour Championship Woods had moved from number 656 to number 21 inside a season, an unprecedented rise. If a young golfer did it, we'd call him the New Tiger. But this was the old one. He was burning bright again.

For all the excellence of Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, they never caught the public imagination like Woods did. The game underwent a charisma bypass in his absence. All those technically brilliant and utterly bland young Americans merged together in the mind. Most of them could walk down a main street without anyone batting an eyelid. You can't imagine an ad where a little kid says: "I am Brooks Koepka."

Golf needs Tiger if it's to escape the country club ghetto. The reaction to his comeback tells you just how great the need is. No major in recent years engendered the same excitement as this week's Tour Championship. The erstwhile moralisers will have to learn to love Tiger again. Or at least pretend to.

Tiger spoiled us. His dominance of golf for over a decade suggested this was the natural state of things and led to speculation about who'd be the New Tiger. There hasn't been one. Instead, confusion reigns at the top of the game.

When Justin Rose became world number one a few weeks ago he was the ninth to hold the position in the last six years. Their average length of incumbency has been just over ten weeks.

One player did seem to have the ability to dominate the game Tiger-style. There was even a moment when he appeared about to do so. There was something unmistakably Tigeresque about Rory McIlroy's victories in the British Open and the USPGA in 2014. They exhibited the same relentless ability to push on when in the lead and really turn the screw on the opposition.

That was the year Nicklaus predicted McIlroy would win 15 or 20 majors, or as many as he wanted to. But there have been no majors since. That manic desire to keep winning which made Nicklaus and Woods the greatest seems absent from McIlroy's game.

You can hardly describe a man ranked fifth in the world as settling for mediocrity but the Irishman is now just one of a number of excellent golfers jousting for supremacy. New wonderkids have emerged to overshadow him in the biggest events.

This year, like others, started with confident predictions that McIlroy was about to catch fire again. It hasn't worked out that way. He's almost 30 and has won four majors. Woods had won eight and Nicklaus seven when they were the same age. The 'as many as he wants' talk feels a bit previous now.

Yet he still seems capable of a lot more. That's why his pairing with Woods evoked a frisson that wouldn't have been there for Spieth or Thomas. McIlroy is always accompanied by the anticipation of what could be.

Had he overcome the three-shot gap to beat his hero on the Sunday of an important tournament, you get the impression that it would have ranked highly in the many great moments of his career.

Instead, Woods birdied the first, McIlroy was four over par for his round by the eighth and the duel became a domination.

The memory of what has been accompanies Woods and it looked to spook the young pretenders last night with Rose shooting three-over to come within a stroke of handing the FedEx Cup crown to the victorious Woods. In his heyday he made golf look like such an easy game. These days there's a greater sense of danger, of a man aware of the precipice. It can come as a shock to see how old he looks when once the abiding impression was of youth and energy and beauty. This is a different Tiger.

Critics speak of the Late Style of great artists. It's there in the final string quartets of Beethoven, plays of Shakespeare and paintings of Rembrandt. These works are not as spectacular as the masterpieces from the creator's heyday. But the memory of lessons learned and obstacles overcome lends them great emotional depth.

That happens in sport too. Ali couldn't move as fast as he used to when he met Foreman in Kinshasa but the smarts and toughness he'd picked up along the way got him through. Now we're seeing the flowering of Tiger's Late Style.

How far can it take him? There's no more interesting question in sport right now. This might yet become the greatest comeback of them all.

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