You wouldn’t often consider a 25-year-old to be washed up, but in the endless cycle of sports media hyperbole, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, golf’s current wunderkind, may as well have been written off going into last week’s (British) Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake. After all, Rory hadn’t won a major championship since (*GASP!*) August 2012. Since then, he had experienced a slump, a change in coaches and management companies, broke off an engagement to a tennis star before recipients of the invitations had even opened them, and walked off a course during a PGA tournament because his wisdom teeth hurt. After two blowout major wins in 2011 & 2012, the vultures descended to pick the carcass…”too much too soon,” “petulant,” “immature,” etc. Even as his game started to round back into form, he was “distracted;” after all, he shot a first-round score of 63 in the Honda Classic in February, followed it up with a 66, and still didn’t win. In Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament last month, he opened with a 63, only to blow up during Friday’s 2nd round, shooting 78. This form continued in the first two rounds of the Scottish Open, considered a warm-up event for the Open Championship. Rory opened with a 64, only to once again follow it up with a 78.
…And then the Open started. Young McIlroy opened with a 6-under-par 66 to take the first round lead. Four years ago, the last time that the Open Championship was held at the home of golf, St. Andrews, Rory blistered the Old Course for a major-championship record-tying 63…only to fall back with an 8-over-par 80 the next day. Nine months later, he took a 4-shot lead into the final nine holes of The Masters, only to make a triple-bogey 7 on #10 and fall way back with a 43 on the back nine.
Would this year be any different? The talk going into Friday’s second round last week was whether or not Rory could get over his second-round issues…which grew louder when he bogeyed the first hole. Rory commenced to play the last 17 holes of the day in 7-under-par to take a four-shot lead into the weekend. After Rickie Fowler (another good young player that is figuring out how to manage his game during the really big tournaments) briefly tied him on the back nine of the third round, Rory put his foot on the gas, making eagles on #16 and #18 to finish with a six-shot lead.
Save for mercurial veteran Sergio Garcia applying some pressure with a superb round of 6-under 66, no one put any pressure on Rory during Sunday’s final round, which is appropriate since it seems that the only player capable of beating Rory when he is at his best is…well, Rory. He coasted in with a par on #18 for a 2-shot win, and (this is an important point to make for such a young player) absolutely seemed in awe of what he had accomplished. Not in an arrogant “I’m the greatest!” way, but in a completely overwhelmed, big-eyed, wondrous way, as in “Wow…I can’t believe that I just won the Open!” Seeing Rory scan the Claret Jug after the closing ceremony, finding all of the names of previous winners…legends of the game like Old & Young Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods…and now his showed, in my mind, that no matter how great he is and he becomes, he will always have an appreciation for where he came from, and a mindset that remembers that golf is fun!
So, how great can he become? He is the third-youngest player to capture three legs of the Grand Slam (behind Jack & Tiger): Rory now has a US Open title (won by eight shots), a PGA Championship (also won by eight shots), and a Claret Jug. He has shown that he can play Augusta National well, and he is only 25 years of age, so it’s not out-of-bounds to think that he could become one of the greatest of all time. Only five men have won the career Grand Slam, but if Rory’s dad is a betting man (which he is: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/21/rory-mcilroys-father-wins-171000-betting-on-his-son-to-win-the-british-open/), he might want to put a few pounds on whether or not his son can complete the career “impregnable quadrilateral,” as golf writer O.B. Keeler once described his friend Bobby Jones’ feat of winning golf’s four biggest tournaments in the same year (1930)…which will never happen again.
For now, move over and make room for the new kid on the block in championship golf, Tiger. As an aside, with Tiger Woods playing in his first major championship last week after a back injury that had sidelined him since March (and ending the week with a career-worst major championship finish), two things are obvious to me:
1.) Tiger Woods is not the same dominant force that he was a few years ago. No one trembles when they see his name near the leaderboard anymore; in fact, his name has been missing from leaderboards for so long that most players might not even recognize it now. His career has clearly gone off the tracks; he is talking about needing to make some swing changes…dude, how about just playing golf again? Playing tournament golf is NOT like riding a bike, no matter how good you think you still are. Missing several months of practice and tournament-quality competition week in and week out has caused your game to atrophy…and it’s OK to acknowledge it. To proclaim that you’re in West England to win the tournament after having played only one event since March comes across as bluster, and the height of competitive arrogance. I could hear the other players scoffing from across the pond. At this point, Tiger has not won a major title in over 6 years, and is his game is no longer even formidable. He is clearly not in a conversation about the best current American players; his inflated world ranking is based on his 2013 season results. Can he get back to that level? Sure he can…he’s come back from injury before (not from back surgery), but if he thinks he’s still one of the best players right now, he’s delusional. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson needs to stick to his gut regarding his captain’s picks for the upcoming competition against Europe’s best players, despite Tiger’s lobbying for a spot on the team. Unless he can produce consistent results from now through August, Tom Watson needs to not treat a coveted spot on the team as a lifetime achievement award. Since 64-year-old Tom Watson actually finished five shots ahead of Tiger last week (T51st place vs 69th place), Tom Watson may be wiser in picking himself for the team come September. Besides, Tiger’s record in Ryder Cup matches is not earth-shaking (13-14-2)…I think he feels entitled because he’s Tiger Woods, and he WILL have his game back in shape by late September, and who are we mere mortals to doubt him? Realistically, the best thing for Tiger Woods’ career at this point might be for Tom Watson to pass him over, which would completely piss Tiger off and make him even more determined to show he is still the best going into next year. A wounded Tiger would be much more dangerous than a sated one.
2.) People (especially media types) constantly discuss how Tiger’s absence and subsequent decline has affected the game. Have they not watched any golf the last few months? Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy hit the ball unfathomable distances, Martin Kaymer’s game has returned from a disappearance so long that it was seen on the side of a milk carton last summer, Rickie Fowler cut his hair and now has back-to-back 2nd-place finishes in majors, Adam Scott is becoming a constant leaderboard presence, and Jordan Spieth is a joy to watch…the kid can’t even order a drink or rent a car, and he is performing at a level that 99.9% of the pros that play this game wish that they could perform. So, yeah, I’d say that the game is in good shape right now. If you don’t agree, than take a look at this:
And, that, my friends, is why golf is in good shape right now.