Letting Go of Tiger, and Getting Ready for a Tigeresque Run
July 21, 2014
It was just Thursday that Tiger Woods had been declared “back.” Even the Associated Press cheered that it “seems like he was never away” after Woods opened with a 3-under 69 in the first round of the British Open.
77-73-75. That was the death knell.
Not six years without a major. Not chronic injuries to his achilles, neck, elbow or back that have cost him a chance to compete in another six majors. Not a violent swing that will age as well as a carton of milk.
Just three over-par rounds that were still better than what this year’s runaway U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer posted.
It’s especially stunning considering the last six years have been a golf media nostalgia tour. Every major preview since 2010 has been a tribute to what Woods did the last time that course was used, and a not-so-subtle prediction that history is ready to repeat itself. (Hint to the golf media: majors cycle through the same courses. There’s a pretty good chance Woods has played well or won there, since he owned the golf world from 1997 to 2008.)
If only the media could have held on for one more major. Woods’ win at Valhalla in 2000 was one of his most exciting!
But it is right now that the media is bailing on Woods. After six years of false starts, it is easy to imagine that the Next Big Thing has finally arrived. Time to jump. Cannon ball!
And we’ve found quite a narrative for the next transcendent golfer.
- Did he grow up watching Woods dominate and become inspired to do the same? Check.
- Was he wooed over to the Nike stable of players so he can make cool commercials with Woods and have the torch passed on to him? Check.
- Can he utterly dominate the best fields on the best courses like Woods used to do? Check.
We think it’s finally clicking, that he has re-prioritized his life to go on a run that we’ve only seen from Woods. But it took four years to get here. A 21-year-old McIlroy led the 2011 Masters by four going into the final round, before imploding with a painful 80. And while McIlroy bagged runaway major wins in 2011 and 2012, he only collected four other PGA Tour titles during that time, and was shut out during a lost 2013.
We weren’t necessarily waiting for McIlroy. We were just waiting for someone. But the media stayed behind Team Tiger, because really, there were no other choices.
The six years since Woods won a major have been quite the tease.
Padraig Harrington exploded onto the scene with three majors in 2008 and 2009, but tinkered his way back to irrelevance. Angel Cabrera picked off a second major, but has drifted on and off the map. Phil Mickelson has collected two more majors, but the older Lefty will never be Woods. Completing the career grand slam and nabbing that elusive U.S. Open will cement his legacy as an all-timer, but a second-tier great. Bubba Watson has Augusta figured out, but the aloof masher is way too inconsistent to take the title of Golf’s Best Player. Kaymer was dominant at Pinehurst, but plunged to No. 63 in the world between his two major titles. Ernie Els collected a magical fourth major, but now he’s three-putting from 12 inches. Darren Clarke had a similar unexpected win for the 40-somethings.
Then there were the one-win wonders who either experienced a hot summer, or simply a once-in-a-lifetime week: Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Y.E. Yang, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson. Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Adam Scott and Jason Dufner all fit the mold of late bloomers, but you can’t be the Next Big Thing with just one major.
Meanwhile, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth have yet to break through.
So it’s just been Woods and his pursuit of the game’s most hallowed record, even though it looks about as reachable as matching Bill Russell’s 11 NBA championships.
If you combined Woods’ 14 majors from 1997 to 2008 with McIlroy’s recent run, you’d still be short of Nicklaus. Can you imagine heaping such expectations on an injury-prone 38-year-old in any other sport? Beyond foolish, right? We don’t expect Derek Jeter (40) to hit .350, or LaDainian Tomlinson (35) to rush for 2,000 yards, or Kevin Garnett (38) to start averaging 25 and 10 again.
But Woods is suddenly going to start doing something from two swings and who knows how many surgeries ago? Do you also think Kobe Bryant (35) is going to lead the league in scoring, and Steve Nash (40) will dish out the most assists?
Woods is old. Yet he still takes lashes at the ball like he’s 25. He’s not trying to age gracefully, like Mickelson’s fluid swing. His once picturesque swing has been eaten up by his weight-lifter body. It’s just not as good as the best players anymore.
McIlroy is a much better driver. Garcia is a much better ball-striker. Fowler is a much better scrambler.
Hey, could Woods pull a Webb Simpson and pick off a major? Of course. But he’s not the favorite anymore. The sad fact is he’s not the best anymore.
The best is a 25-year-old from Northern Ireland, who just picked up the third leg of the career grand slam. The only others to do so by the age of 25 in the modern era? Jack Nicklaus (23) and Woods (24). Now that’s a list that screams the Next Big Thing.
So here we are with the immensely talented McIlroy, a kid who has a pair of eight-shot wins in majors, and now this wire-to-wire act at the British Open. He is already that Masters train-wreck away from the career slam.
McIlroy survived the abyss that was the first half of the 2013 season while he battled through a club-manufacturer change. (But how can you blame the kid for taking $200 million?) He got through a messy public breakup.
Now he is single, and driven. He has tasted the kind of dominance only Woods has experienced, and he is still hungry.
It looks like the only thing that can stop McIlroy is a swing change. McIlroy is just 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, but he unleashes hell on the ball. He launched a drive 395 yards on Friday, and drove a 436-yard par 4 the week before that. He hits the kind of drives that inspire video games to be made in your likeness. He owns the type of swing kids will grow up trying to emulate. He is a birdie and eagle machine, the kind that can zoom away from zero to six shots up in five holes.
It’s exciting because we’ve seen McIlroy hit the kinds of shots that Woods used to. And while we should never expect anyone to run off four straight majors like Woods did in 2000-2001, McIlroy has that kind of dominant potential.
But for our sake, Rory, don’t try to change anything else. Woods’ peak window was too small. You are there right now. Let us enjoy it. The window of dominance in golf is shorter than you think.
In the post-Masters era, Woods won his 14 majors over 11 years. Ben Hogan won his nine in seven. Tom Watson won his eight in eight. Arnold Palmer won his seven in six. Only Nicklaus (24 years) and fitness king Gary Player (19) seem to be the exceptions.
McIlroy is four years in, right in the middle of his time. And I can’t wait to see what the next four years will bring.