Tiger Woods was leaning on a podium late Sunday afternoon, a sheen of sweat still on his thick arms, talking about another major championship that had escaped him while the cheers were beginning to escort Rory McIlroy down the 18th fairway at the Ocean Course.
The line of questioning with Woods shifted from why he hadn’t seriously contended on Sunday at the PGA Championship to his impressions of McIlroy, who was winning his second major championship in just 17 starts.
How, Woods was asked, does a 23-year old McIlroy sustain such success across the span of a career?
“Just do it,” Woods said.
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So much for elaboration.
McIlroy might just do it.
He has played major championship golf for four years and already has two trophies. In those same four years, Woods hasn’t won a major championship, though he has finished sixth or better in seven of the 14 majors he’s played in that time.
What McIlroy hinted at with his Sunday 62 at Quail Hollow two year ago and his breakthrough eight-stroke victory in the U.S. Open in 2011, he cemented Sunday beside the Atlantic Ocean. He’s the game’s next great player.
“Rory’s proving that when he plays well, he plays like Tiger played well,” Padraig Harrington said. “Tiger turned up for a few years (and) if he brought his A game, the rest of us struggled to compete.
“Rory is showing us that with his A game, everybody else is going to struggle to compete with him and Tiger needs his A game to come up against Rory. He’s not going to beat him unless he has a big weekend.”
Woods didn’t have a big weekend at the Ocean Course. He made the surprising admission that he approached Saturday’s rain-interrupted third round the wrong way – he tried to enjoy himself. It’s a nice thought but it’s not Woods’ style, particularly not in major championships.
After the first two rounds when Woods needed to generate momentum, he stalled. It happens sometimes but he doesn’t seem to hit as many iron shots close or hole as many medium-length putts as he once did on major championship weekends.
Woods is different now. Less of a sure thing. Still, he’s won three times this year, leads the PGA Tour in stroke average and money won. He’s not going anywhere except to continue chasing Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record.
“I still think Tiger’s going to catch Jack,” Harrington said.
McIlroy, meanwhile, appears ready to inherit Woods’ place as the game’s dominant player.
“He’s very good,” Woods said. “This is the way Rory can play. When he gets it going, it’s pretty impressive to watch.”
That’s McIlroy’s magic.
He’s the first player to leave us awestruck in the way Woods has so often.
McIlroy hits shots others don’t or can’t. On Friday, with the wind howling, McIlroy held a 4-iron shot into the wind that landed on the par-3 14th green that had been as elusive as Bigfoot. He then made an 18-footer for birdie that stabilized a round that could have turned ugly. It didn’t get much notice but Sunday night McIlroy’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, said it was one of the most important moments of the week.
Coming home Sunday, McIlroy finished with a 350-yard drive across the dunes and into the heart of the 18th fairway that might have seemed showy had it not been so pure.
McIlroy’s career has intersected Woods’ and, while it’s not like it was a decade ago, it allows McIlroy to build a portion of his career resume against one of the two best players in history. For Woods, McIlroy is the best of the next generation, the way Tom Watson came along to challenge Jack Nicklaus.
“(McIlroy’s) No. 1 in the universe right now, not No. 1 in the world. It’s not close,” television analyst David Feherty said.
“Tiger’s not where he was. People keep asking is Tiger Woods back? Back where? Yeah, he’s back. He’s won three times this year. He’s not back where he was at the turn of the century. I think it will be another century before anybody gets there. It’s an unreasonable standard to hold anybody to.”
While Woods remains the gold standard, McIlroy is setting the new standard.
“Everybody should take note,” Ian Poulter said. “The guy’s pretty good.”