Tuesday 11 December 2018

Young guns in pursuit of McIlroy

Tiger Woods, aims to return to competitive golf once more after getting good news on his back problem. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Tiger Woods, aims to return to competitive golf once more after getting good news on his back problem. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Liam Kelly

Rory McIlroy's ten years on Tour do not qualify him for 'veteran' status, particularly at the age of 28, but everywhere he looks, a rising cohort of talented young players is taking the world of golf by storm.

Unlike Tiger Woods, who enjoyed over a decade of dominance once he emerged in the professional ranks in 1996, McIlroy had a relatively short run of being the new kid on the block, finding in the last couple of years that the competition levels are immense.

Woods, once he destroyed the opposition in the 1997 Masters to win his first Major championship by a record 12 strokes, set down a marker for the best of the rest.

A new sheriff was in town and Tiger's law operated in the territory he was to more or less control on his terms until November 2009, when his sex exploits came to light.

Tiger, the golfer, will remain in the history books as the second highest Major winner with 14 titles to his credit behind Jack Nicklaus, on 18.

Humiliation

Tiger, the professional athlete, has been undone by a succession serious back problems that make a return to the game at tournament-winning standard virtually impossible.

Tiger, the man, had to cope with all the public humiliation he suffered in the aftermath of his indiscretions, and more recently, his brush with the authorities for driving under the influence of a cocktail of prescription drugs

At the time Woods underwent surgery for his knee issues following his heroic battle against pain and Rocco Mediate to win the 2008 US Open, McIlroy was completing his first season as a Tour player.

Little did anyone know at the time, but Woods was destined to make a car crash - literally and metaphorically - of his life in 2009.

The beginning of the end for Woods overlapped with a period when the wee man from Holywood was beginning to fulfil the rich potential he had shown in his amateur career, starting with his maiden Tour victory in the Dubai Desert Classic.

Tiger's charisma and success, and his raising the bar in terms of athleticism for golfers, inspired McIlroy and his successors.

In turn, McIlroy became an example of how a young, fearless golfer can succeed, but now the warning bells are ringing loudly as the 20-something predators follow in his footsteps.

Everywhere he looks, McIlroy can see serious talent breaking through to claim the top titles, especially Majors and World Golf Championship events.

In the 2016-17 PGA Tour season which ended with the Tour Championship last month, eight players in the age group 20-24 won 15 tournaments, including two Majors - the Open won by Jordan Spieth and the US PGA won by Justin Thomas.

The 25-29s featured nine winners of 12 tournaments, including Brooks Koepka (27), the US Open champion.

McIlroy will have noted the success rate of some serious opponents, all multiple winners in 2016-17.

Check out these six players who between them won 20 of 47 non-team events on the PGA Tour: Thomas (24) - five, including the PGA Championship and Dell Technologies Championship in FedEx Cup Final Series; Dustin Johnson (33) - four, including two World Golf Championship events; Hideki Matsuyama (25) - four, including two WGC events; Spieth (24) - three, including the Open Championship.

That's not to say the older guys must bow the knee, as 37-year old Sergio Garcia proved by donning the Green Jacket at the Masters last April, but if McIlroy is to revive and thrive, he needs a successful 2018 to launch the next five years of his career.

The rib injury needs to completely heal, and his game needs work, and McIlroy knows it.

Yet he remains optimistic, and rightly so. McIlroy is a class player, and class endures.

Let's not forget that he finished runner-up to Paul Dunne in the British Masters recently.

McIlroy will also bank on the experience he has gained from the highs and lows over the last decade.

"The landscape of the game has changed a bit since I started to win Majors. You've got young, hungry guys now that are fearless," he said.

"They're basically playing the game I played a few years ago. I feel like I'm a much better player now than I was in 2010 and 2012 when I was able to win a couple of Majors. I see no reason why I can't better that in the next ten years."

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