[Originally posted July 21,2014]
Three years ago, after he had blown away the field at the US Open Congressional, I wrote a rather lengthy Facebook post that wondered if we were getting over-heated in our excitement over Rory McIlroy. As you may recall, his win came during the post-Tiger Scandal/First Tiger Injury era, when golf TV ratings had dropped dramatically. I suppose we were all anxious for the Next Big Thing in Golf to identify himself and I suggested that we all take a deep breath before proclaiming him The Next Big Thing in Golf.
[If you’re interested, here it is.]
After winning The Open Championship yesterday, McIlroy, now 25 years old, has won three of golf’s four major titles, which puts him in rarified air along with Mr. Woods and Mr. Nicklaus as being the youngest to do so. It has not always been the smoothest of rides. He left high-profile agent Chubby Chandler, flamed out again at the Masters, had a high-profile romance with Caroline Wozniacki that ended rather clumsily, and at times made statements that reminded us that, yes, he’s in his early 20’s and will say things that someone in his early 20’s will say. At the same time, he had an awesome 2012 season, winning four times on tour (including another major rout at that year’s PGA Championship). 2013 was something of a dud, but after the breakup with Wozniacki earlier this year, he erased a seven shot deficit in the final round to beat out Thomas Bjorn to capture the European PGA Championship.
And then there was his performance in the Open, which was exhilarating – particularly the eagle/eagle finish on 16 and 18 on Saturday which effectively won the tournament for him. He drove the ball superbly, putted like a Zen master, and responded to his own hiccups and challenges from others admirably. Moreover, he was incredibly patient, not only on the course, but with a media that was obsessed with his recent spate of great Thursday/horrific Friday outings.
It’s a testimony to both Ricky Fowler and Sergio Garcia that they did their best over the weekend to try to make it close; Garcia, particularly. He has never been a favorite of mine; his whining over perceived injustices and outright jackassery on the course (spitting in the cup, kicking a microphone on the tee, throwing one of his shoes at spectators) have not been particularly endearing. But at Hoylake, he played with passion while eschewing the pouting. Even after the ill-fated bunker shot on the back 9 Sunday, he did not quit. And the way he embraced the applause of the spectators on the final hole was truly heartfelt. Maybe he has grown up. Or maybe he’s just someone who will always wear his heart on his sleeve. In any event, the thought of him winning a major no longer repulses me, which perhaps shows growth on both of our parts.
Fowler is no longer a golf clothing model – his work with Butch Harmon has begun to pay off; moreover, of all the contenders at the Open, he seemed to have the most fun. When McIlroy hugged his “mum” in celebration after play ended on Sunday, Fowler could be be seen smiling as he watched and walked by them in the background. Which is some you would never see Tiger Woods do.
Ah, yes – Tiger. Honestly, his issues on the course remain the same as they were prior to his injury; mainly, he can’t drive it consistently in the fairway. This point was driven home by the ESPN broadcasting team to a stupefying degree, primarily because we, the TV viewing audience, were allowed to witness the lion’s share of his 294 shots, which has to be some kind of record. A friend of mine said he felt somewhat sorry for Woods in this tournament. While I could not personally go that far, it was remarkable how quickly he deflated in his second round after a rocky start. He’s going through yet another swing change (one precipitated, no doubt, by injury), and at this point, even his most ardent supporters would have to say that he’s a mess (and please, let’s not get carried away by his opening round 69). He did meet with the media after each round, and for once did not mince words about his game or claim that he was “this close” to being the force he once was. He’s 38 years old, but not unlike Seve Ballesteros at a similar time of his career, it’s an old 38. Much is being made of the fact that Firestone and Valhalla, two of his favorite tracks, are upcoming. If he can’t hit it straight, he’s not going to win anywhere.
I find it amusing that articles are being written today about how Rory is “blocking” Tiger’s path to Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional major wins, when in actuality it’s a talented array of pursuers who could have the majors split among them. Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and the criminally under-appreciated Martin Kaymer are all in or approaching their primes. Fowler is knocking on the door, and Jordan Spieth still can’t legally drink in most of the US. Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, and Jim Furyk are all major champions in their 40’s who still have plenty of game left. Garcia might be more hungry than ever, and Henrik Stenson (if he can keep his emotions under control) has the game to be a major threat.
But Rory has the total package, has the most upside, and has seemed to have weathered the controversies in his life remarkably well for someone his age. He might not dominate like Tiger did, but he is the man. We might as well get used to it.