Woods meets his match in McIlroy
THE next Major is eight months away. The next showdown is nine days away.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are assured of being paired together next week at The Barclays for the start of the FedEx Cup play-offs. And while these play-off events are more about making money than making history, this could become meaningful down the road.
Woods has never faced a rival with this kind of potential.
He has never won at least three times in a year without being looked upon as the undisputed best player in golf.
For the first time in his quest to break Jack Nicklaus’s Major record, the biggest challenge for Woods is no longer overcoming a failed marriage, four knee operations, a tender Achilles tendon, or even the fact that he is getting older. It is another player.
McIlroy and Woods have played in the same tournaments 12 times this year. McIlroy has finished ahead of Woods seven times, including wins at the Honda Classic and the PGA Championship. They both tied for 40th at the Masters. McIlroy has seven top-five finishes in those events, along with three missed cuts.
This is not about where they were at a similar stage in their careers. Woods is incomparable in that regard. McIlroy has won twice in his first 16 Majors as a pro. Woods won five Majors in that span, including the career Grand Slam at age 24.
It is about where they are now. So dominant was McIlroy at Kiawah Island, where he had rounds of 67-66 on the weekend to win the PGA Championship by eight shots, that it is easy to get carried away. He is only 23, younger by some four months than Woods was when he won his second Major, and he is doing things only thought possible by Woods: a record score at the US Open last year at Congressional; a record margin of victory at the PGA Championship on Sunday at Kiawah Island.
McIlroy has won two Majors by a combined 16 shots. To put that in perspective, only five Majors have been won by eight shots or more in the past 35 years — three by Woods, two by McIlroy.
But let us see how this plays out. McIlroy could be like Johnny Miller, a comet on the golf horizon in the 1970s. Miller won two Majors, with a 63 on the last day at Oakmont and a 66 in the final round at Royal Birkdale.
Perhaps McIlroy will be like Tom Watson, who was 10 years younger than Nicklaus. Nicklaus already had the record for most Majors when Watson won his first one, although Watson kept him from winning more.
McIlroy is 13 years younger than Woods. They have never gone head to head in a Major. Ultimately, that will be the measure. Along the way, however, McIlroy is stashing away confidence that few others could when Woods was at his peak.
Nick Faldo once explained why Woods had such a huge advantage in the Majors. Faldo thought after the 1997 Masters that Augusta National would be the only place Woods could win a Major because the course suited him and because it was the only Major where the media was kept outside the ropes. Later, he realised that Woods was the only one who could handle the commotion inside the ropes in the final round.
"Other guys will step into that arena one week and go back out," Faldo said in a 2007 interview. "He’s there all the time. And good luck coming into his world."
McIlroy now has been top of the leaderboard in 10 out of the past 40 rounds in the Majors.
Woods lost two full years because of the strife he created in his personal life, and then more leg injuries, and then hiring his third swing coach.
The main problem for Woods has been his head.
His game is in great shape, and he knows it. He is pressing to win a Major, to resume his pursuit of Nicklaus and shut up the critics. But this is the wrong game to try too hard. Maybe that is a lesson from Kiawah.
The bigger problem could turn out to be McIlroy.