Tag Archives: Rory McIlroy

Trials and Triumph at Royal Troon


Golf needed this.

After Jordan Spieth’s meltdown at Augusta.

And the rules fiasco at Oakmont.

After the flack and posturing over the absence of many of the game’s top players at the Olympics next month.

Golf needed this. And Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson delivered.

Stenson/Mickelson was not quite dramatic as Watson/Nicklaus in the latter pair’s famous “Duel In the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977, although the circumstances were similar. In both instances, the combatants separated themselves from the field by a substantial margin and simply did not back down. The edge still has to go the Duel in the Sun, as that particular contest literally came down to the final hole – and literally the final stroke, as Nicklaus had fashioned an improbable birdie from the tall fescue on the 18th and rolled in a 35 foot putt, mentally shrinking the hole for what had previously seemed to be a gimmee on Watson’s two-foot putt. But Tom rolled it in, and his stature in the game was cemented.

Yesterday’s finish came pretty damned close. Consider that Lefty shot a bogey-free 6-under 65, including an improbable save on the 12th – and still finished three shots behind Henrik Stenson, whose final round 63 actually included 2 bogies, including an opening hole three putt that had most of us wondering if final round major championship nerves had set in. Three consecutive birdies later, we had the answer, and were treated to a mixture of spectacular shot making and courageous scrambling by both golfers, culminating with Stenson closing the door on a game Mickelson in the final holes.

It’s been a long road for the Swede, who has seen both ends of the spectrum in his career. Stenson won the World Match Play in 2007 and the Player’s Championship in 2009, but then fell into a spiral that saw him drop to 230th in the world rankings. He fought his way back; in 2013 he scored several impressive victories and won the FedEx Cup (he also finished runner-up that year at the Open, finishing three shots behind .  . . Phil Mickelson).

He has continued his good play since then on both the PGA and European Tours, and was a key contributor in continuing Europe’s Ryder Cup dominance in 2014 – and speaking of which, wouldn’t a Stenson/Mickelson match-up at this year’s proceedings at Hazeltine be absolutely delicious?

Stenson is said to be the possessor of a keen, dry sense of humor, and at times has been known to snap a club or two in anger. Perhaps most infamously, he once stripped down to his underwear to play a shot from a hazard, which created a bit of a ruckus among the more crusty golf aficionados. I daresay that being the Champion Golfer of the Year in record setting fashion will dress up his resume.

As for Phil . . . he did everything right except win the tournament. His own 63 in the opening round was bogey-free, and but for a stray blade of grass and the combined pact with golfing Satan by Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller working against him on 18, he would have achieved golf immortality with the lowest round in major championship golf history.

This was the 11th runner up finish for Mickelson in a major, which cruelly also makes him the bridesmaid to Jack Nicklaus in that category. There have been times when he’s been his own worst enemy in arriving at those finishes, but in the final round at Troon he played brilliant, courageous golf. In his victory speech, the first person that Stenson thanked was Mickelson for pushing him to play the best golf of his life. While this was a gracious thought, it was likely of small consolation to Phil, who has not won since his 2013 victory at Muirfield and, at age 46, could be seeing his chances at another major championship dwindling.

Then again, it was pointed out in one of the earlier rounds of the outstanding coverage provided by the Golf Channel and NBC that the average age of an Open Champion is about 10 years older than any of the other majors. I hadn’t really thought about it, but in the last 6 years, 5 winners have been at least 39 years old (Rory McIlroy being the exception). Stenson and Mickelson combine for 86 years on the planet.

I suppose what this brings to light is that links golf presents a number of unique challenges – the penal bunkering, the firm, bouncy turf, slower greens, and, of course, the weather; all of which require adaptability in shot-making and not a little bit of patience in accepting the ever changing, unpredictable conditions.

Tom Watson almost pulled off an Open Championship at the age of 59. Maybe Phil gets another chance. But this one had to hurt.


I have to believe that the R&A was thrilled with the outcome of this year’s Open – not only by the quality of play by the champion and runner-up, but by the fact that there were no major controversies regarding rules or procedures.

The week didn’t start that way, as the deadline for Olympic commitments coincided with the Open’s practice sessions and press conferences. Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson were “game time decisions,” both decided against going, citing health and security concerns. Johnson, as is his wont, gave a brief answer at his presser and moved on to other topics. Spieth, on the other hand, bent over backwards and tied himself in knots explaining that if it were any other year, he’d be thrilled to go, that it was the hardest decision in his life, and so on. He also pronounced that he felt better about his swing than he has all year . . . and proceeded to spend the first three rounds playing most of his tee shots from the right rough.  A final round 68 may provide some momentum for the upcoming PGA Championship (moved up in the schedule by two weeks to accommodate the Olympics), but he still seems frustrated on the course.

But it was Rory McIlroy who gave golf scribes their juiciest bits, stating in no uncertain terms that the Olympics were not an event to which he aspired, that it was not his sole responsibility to grow the game, and that if he did tune in, it would be to watch swimming or track and field. This sent the Defender of the Rings into an uproar – I thought Brandel Chamblee would explode on the Golf Channel set – and McIlroy did somewhat couch his statements later, citing his involvement with youth golf programs and the First Tee as evidence to his commitment to the future of golf. He did not, however, back off from his feelings about Olympic golf.

As I’ve stated previously, there are several flies in the Olympic golf ointment – the scheduling, the format, and the manner of qualification make for a weak field and a boring tournament [at least this is the case on the men’s draw. On the women’s side, there seems to be firm commitment from virtually all of the top qualifying players. I’m predicting an all-South Korean podium].

Maybe the Olympics will surprise us. After watching what transpired this week at Royal Troon, I doubt it.

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The Next Triumverate

 

 

Jason DayThe signs have been there for longer than some folks might want to admit, but the past two seasons on the PGA tour have definitely established the post-Tiger Woods era in professional golf. We’ve seen a genuine tussle at the top of the rankings between Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth (along with multiple major wins for both), second major wins for Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer, and Zach Johnson, and, this past weekend, a convincing major win at the PGA Championship for Jason Day. If there is a player on tour whose background could be described as Dickensian (Shane Ryan covers it brilliantly in his essential chronicle of the 2014 PGA Tour season, Chasing the Tiger), it would be this young man. His hard road to this moment was evidenced on the final hole; he could not hold back tears even prior to holing the tiny putt that sealed his victory.

Day had come close before in major championships in the past, and this year was shaping up to be another year of disappointment. At the US Open, he started very strongly before collapsing to the ground as he attempted to exit the 9th green at Chambers Bay, a result of an inner ear virus that caused vertigo-like symptoms [NOTE: The Golf Nerd has suffered in the past from this malady, which, among other things, makes a simple act like getting out of bed a struggle]. He managed to finish out the tournament quite respectably, but had to wonder what might have been.

Rory McIlroyMore vexing was his finish at the Open Championship. He came to the final hole needing a birdie to tie for the lead, only to leave a makeable downhill putt woefully short. The look of self-loathing on his face after that miserable roll was almost too much to bear.

But he came back the following week to win the Canadian Open, which seemed to galvanize him. He arrived at Whistling Straits full of confidence and simply pulverized the course; his 20 under par total set a major championship record and sprung him to #3 in the World Rankings. While talk of a new “Big 3” of Spieth, McIlroy, and Day may be a tad premature, it’s definitely worth contemplating.

Meanwhile, Spieth’s runner-up finish allowed him to take over the world #1 ranking from McIlroy, which I’m sure rankles the Irishman, and sets up a nice future rivalry. The two were paired in the opening rounds last weekend, which had the TNT/CBS broadcast team salivating. Round one found them both at a rather pedestrian -1, but after a somewhat indifferent start to round two, Spieth holed a bunker shot for birdie and began leaving Rory in the dust. To be fair, this was Rory’s first tournament since his ill-advised pickup soccer boondoggle, and while he certainly seemed physically able, the rust on his game was evident.

It’s been a frustrating year for McIlroy – big wins in Dubai and at the WGC Match Play and Wells Fargo tournaments coupled with some inexplicably poor performances, including a jaw-dropping 80 while on his way to missing the cut at The Irish Open. But there’s no reason to think that he won’t return to top form.

Jordan Spieth

As for Spieth – despite coming up (just) short in the last two majors of the season, the young Texan has become must-see viewing. While not possessing the length off the tee of a Day or McIlroy, his skills around the green are ungodly, and there is the added bonus of his conversations with caddy Michael Geller and his commentary/evaluation of his in-flight shots (“DUDE!” he’ll scream at a misdirected effort. Although my favorite observation of his came during Sunday’s final round when, faced with a nasty lie in one of Whistling Straits 1,000-plus bunkers which required a splay-legged stance in and out of it, he muttered, “Man, this is a tough shot” – and then proceeded to nearly hole it out. ).

At my advanced age, I’ve learned not to completely give my heart over to any athlete, but Spieth is severely testing my cynicism. One scribe describes his demeanor at press conferences thusly – “He is the young man who has come to your house to meet your daughter and wants to make an impression.” He answers every question earnestly, gently correcting an interrogator when he thinks said individual has gotten something wrong rather than wearing a look of constipation, and manages to acknowledge his own special talent with honesty and humility. One would be justified in wondering if there’s a bit of Eddie Haskell in him, but he seems pretty well grounded.

But what’s obvious and most refreshing is his sense of sportsmanship and decency, particularly in defeat. His embraces of Zach Johnson in St Andrews and Day this past weekend were sincere, and more than once he’s been seen giving a thumbs-up to a fellow competitor’s good shot.

Quite simply, he’s the most likeable golfer since Arnold Palmer and the most gracious runner-up since Jack Nicklaus, while being as fiercely competitive as Tiger Woods ever was.

Be still, my heart.

Golf’s Immodest Apprentice

The biggest story that came out of the Doral Championship a few weeks back (excuse me, Your Donaldness – these days, its official title is “World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral” – The Donald is clearly not into the whole brevity thing) was Rory McIlroy, after dunking an approach shot into the water (I’m convinced that Doral is a gigantic lagoon with golf holes built through it, not the other way around), helicoptering the offending club into the drink. The reactions to the club-toss – which is considered to be a faux pas among most “civilized” golfers – ranged from good-humored commentary regarding his throwing motion to tsk-tsk’s from the game’s protectors to nods of, if not approval, at least acceptance – “Hey, I do that, too!”

Televised temper-tantrums by professionals on the course are not the norm, although it happens. Sometimes a player’s oaths get picked up by on-course microphones. Tiger Woods is notorious for this, although the player who set the standard was Curtis Strange, who was the original “victim” of the Golf Channel’s expanded coverage to early rounds. When told he was being fined again after an opening round use of raw language, Strange bemoaned, “You mean I can’t get away with a “Goddam” on a f*cking THURSDAY?” Sergio Garcia has spit in hole after removing a ball following a three-putt and smashed microphones. Then there was Woody Austin’s meltdown for the ages after leaving a putt woefully short. At least in Woody’s case, the anger is self-directed.

The most infamous professional club-toss specialist was the whimsically monikered Tommy Bolt, whose nickname was “Thunder” and who threw so many clubs that he might have been a candidate for “Tommy John” surgery had the procedure been available in his day. It was Bolt who advised, “Always throw your clubs ahead of you. That way you don’t have to waste energy going back to pick them up.” Bolt also stated that “Golf is a game where guts and blind devotion will always net you absolutely nothing but an ulcer.” I have to believe these two thoughts are related.

Eventually, Bolt realized that many folks in the gallery were expecting such eruptions and started firing clubs as a means of playing to the crowd.

All that said, throwing clubs is not cool, as McIlroy acknowledged after his display (“It wasn’t very role model-ish of me”) . . . although host Donald Trump, whose addiction to the media makes Kim Khardashian seem like Greta Garbo, had a diver retrieve Rory’s dunked 3-iron and returned it to him in front of a fawning media, and then went on to say “what a wonderful display of emotion it was by Rory. Something we can all relate to.”

The second part of that statement is all too true. But there’s nothing “wonderful” about throwing a golf club in anger. It’s childish behavior, not to mention dangerous if the club finds itself striking another player. But then again, The Donald’s bombastic entry into the world of golf has been anything but wonderful. He ordered architect Gil Hanse to essentially blow up Doral’s Blue Monster course and render it virtually unplayable for all but the longest hitters. Trump makes no apologies for this; his opinion is that a “great” golf course should be extremely difficult and reward the game’s longest hitters – in other word, take a hike, Zach Johnson and Jim Furyck.

The iconic Turnberry Resort in Scotland is now in Trump’s hands. One of his first acts was to inform R&A President Peter Dawson that the next time the Open Championship came to Turnberry’s Ailsa course, the tournament would be officially titled “The Trump Turnberry Open Championship.” Dawson was not amused.

Trump’s purchase of Turnberry came on the heels of bailing out of his development in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where he had promised a 400-room resort that would put 6,000 people to work. He did complete the course there – he had a fantastic piece of dunes-swept links land with which to work, and from the parts of the course that I was able to walk, it appears that that it’s eminently playable – although there are options both north (Cruden Bay) and south (Royal Aberdeen) that are likely at least as enjoyable at half the cost. However, neither course has a plaque that reads as follows as the golf heads for the first tee at Trump International:

“Trump International Golf Links, Scotland, was conceived and built by Donald J. Trump, and officially opened on July 10, 2012.

 Encompassing the world’s largest dunes, The Great Dunes of Scotland, Mr. Trump and his architect, Dr. Martin Hawtree, delicately weaved these magnificent golf holes through this unparalleled 600 acre site running along the majestic North Sea.

 The unprecedented end result is, according to many, the greatest golf course anywhere in the world!” (italics mine)

On the one hand, this last statement should surprise absolutely no one, as this is the same man who has proclaimed (in response to queries about running for high office) that he “is the only American who can bring this country together.” At the same time, TIGLS isn’t even the best course in Aberdeenshire, much less the planet.

And we’re not through with The Donald just yet, as his New Jersey Trump National layout will host the 2022 PGA Championship. One can only imagine what’s written on THAT plaque.

Trump

Sound and Fury

A favorite motion picture quote comes from Billy Murray, who in the film “Tootsie” plays Dustin Hoffman’s friend and roommate. When Hoffman’s character reveals his scheme in pursuing his transgender acting opportunity, Murray furrows his brow and remarks, “Ok, we’re getting into a weird area here.”

Such is the state of the PGA Tour these days. Dustin Johnson takes a “leave of absence” from the tour for personal and physical reasons.  Various media outlets report that Johnson has been suspended from the tour for cocaine use. The Tour denies that he has been suspended. Of course, the Tour, ever image-conscious, never announces any fines or suspensions for alleged misbehavior – although John Daly, bless his heart, was having none of that when he took a break back in 2008. “Oh, no, I was definitely suspended,” said Long John, who felt that he owned it to his fans and the public to be honest about his issues.

Other juicy tidbits have emerged regarding Johnson’s suspension, including 1) speculation that his previous absence from the Tour (officially attributed to injury) was in fact drug-related, and 2) a rumor that he was involved with another Tour player’s wife (say what you will about Tiger Woods, but at least he confined himself to porn stars and Denny’s waitresses).

I wish the Tour would be more transparent in these cases so that we are not left to conjecture (and whatever issues Johnson is facing, I would hope he can learn to deal with him), but there has always been a curious relationship among the Tour, its players, and the golf press, all buttressed, naturally, by corporate sponsors that drive tournament purses. Professional golf sells itself as a clean sport, where never is heard a discouraging word. On the flip side, golf “journalists” have largely played along, trading “access” for relatively tame questions of the players. Stepping outside these bounds can have consequences to those covering the game. When noted writer Charles Pierce dared to suggest in GQ back in 1997 that Woods, while regarded potentially the most talented player ever, was a normal 21 year old and not the second coming of Gandhi (as Woods’s father suggested in a Sports Illustrated article), he was accused of “ambush journalism” and was largely blamed for Woods’s guarded relationship with the press going forward.

Running parallel to this is the notion of Woods being chosen for the US Ryder Cup team (a team, by the way, that is seriously impacted by Johnson’s absence).  I’m still amazed that captain Tom Watson has not put this to rest. It’s apparent to everyone (save for 90% of golf commentators and ESPN) that Woods is nowhere near top form and that his back is still an issue. Yet the golf world collectively holds its breath – on Wednesday, the Golf Channel waited for him to show up at Valhalla, and 1) provided commentary on his health based on him opening the tailgate of his SUV and stretching on the bumper, and 2) analyzing his shots on the practice range.

Words is that Woods is “desperate” to be chosen for the Ryder Cup – although “desperate” might be the word that would be best applied to the various media outlets who will cover the event and that seem to go into withdrawal when there he is not in the field. But has anyone even bothered to look at Woods’s Ryder Cup record? First off, it’s below .500. Secondly, there is always major consternation as to who will partner with him, although the question should probably be, “Who the hell WANTS to partner with him,” given his record. Finally – since 1999, the US has won exactly one (1) Cup, in 2008. Guess who wasn’t on the team that year?

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy (who Jack Nicklaus has officially hexed by stating that he should win ‘”15 to 20 majors”) waits in the wings with a chance to win his third tournament in a row (two of them being majors), with a bevy of young challengers waiting in the wings.  That should be the major story going into the PGA Championship this week. I don’t need to watch Tiger Woods practice, and if he chooses to play (and if he were to make the cut), I certainly don’t need to watch him hit another 290-plus shots.  If he truly wants to benefit golf (and himself), he needs to shut it down until he is ready to play again, and stop kidding himself and us.

Rory Revisited and Open Musings

[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.

Let’s All Calm Down

 

[NOTE: Originally posted on Facebook – June 20, 2011)

I made an observation on Facebook about Rory McIlroy’s record-setting U.S. Open victory that some took to be a bit harsh (“McIlroy held up – good on him. But let’s hold off on any coronation.”). I was not being disrespectful or “grumpy”; I’ll try to explain it here.

First off – I give all due props and a huge huzzah to him. Not only was this a dominating performance against a strong field, it was a redemption of sorts – most people with a passing knowledge of the current events of golf know that McIlroy not only has a ridiculous level of skill, but also has endured a couple of rather unfortunate (and very visible) blowups in major events; most recently in this year’s Masters, which was as painful a meltdown as I’ve seen on a golf course (this coming from a man who, in addition to witnessing any number of Shark gag jobs, recalls Arnie blowing a seven shot lead in the ’66 Open, watched Mark Calcheveccia nearly destroy his career at the ’91 Ryder Cup, and, oh yes, there was this guy from France named Van de Velde).  I’m sure his followers held their collective breath over the weekend when he once again jumped out to a fast start, and were quite relieved when he kept it in high gear. With a huge lead on Sunday, his strategy changed slightly, but he continued to deliver quality golf shots (including a near-ace on number 10) and was able to coast to victory.

There are a lot of reasons why golf fans want to embrace McIlroy – aside from his breath-taking talent and nearly perfect swing (think Freddie Couples tempo with better technique), he is a very young-looking 21 year old who is unfailingly polite when interviewed (he seems equally accessible after both good and bad rounds, and his positive response to Bob Costas’s query about playing more in the US was, I’m sure, welcome news to PGA tour sponsors here), appears to be genuinely liked by his peers (I did like his comment about ensuring that plenty of Guiness would be available to celebrate his win), doesn’t act like a jackass when he suffers some misfortune on the golf course, and has not been declared the second coming of Gandhi by his father.. Some might think that these points might be pointed at or contrasted against a certain player who was absent from the Open field due to injury. They would be correct. And this is part of my concern.

For the past fifteen odd years, one name, for better or worse (I personally think it’s the latter, but I’m probably in the minority) has dominated the game of golf – yes, there would be the occasional burst from Phil or Ernie, or a rare supernova named Duval would spectacularly blaze across the horizon, but generally speaking, any time one Eldrick Woods decided to tee it up, he was the de facto defending champion and odd-on favorite to win whatever tournament was being played (well, except for maybe Ryder Cup matches and any event held at Riviera). We marveled at his skill and celebrated his fist-pumping tenacity, while either forgiving or ignoring on-course and post-round behavior that at times was juvenile, rude, or borderline unsportsmanlike.

And now a confluence of events has sidelined Mr. Woods, and there’s no guarantee that if and when he returns he can regain the skills (or develop new ones, such as, oh, occasionally hitting a fairway every now and then) that propelled him to the top. And in a time of economic difficulty, the absence of golf’s most bankable star has certainly had an adverse affect at minimum on televised ratings and other peripherals of the game.

So when a performance such as McIlroy’s occurs, and when NBC has sunk mucho dinerointo televising golf in general and USGA events in particular, there is an overwhelming desire by those who most stand to benefit from it (other than the golfer, of course) to coronate someone as the “next” whomever. The wide margin of victory allowed for some rather fanciful speculation by the broadcast commentators (including a phone call to Jack Nicklaus) concerning Rory’s long-term prospects, and already the pundits are debating the likelihood of him catching Woods or (gasp) Nicklaus in the major championship department, all of which seems to be a bit premature.

[On a somewhat more practical level, a friend of mine who has gone totally over the top about McIlroy’s win wondered aloud which endorsements Tiger lost as a result of his off-course issues; I mentioned Gatorade as one of them. He bet me $10 that within six months Rory will be the new golf spokesman for that particular product. I will be generous and buy him a drink when he pays me off. How does vodka and orange Gatorade taste, anyway?]

We seem to have forgotten the great Masters finish of one Charl Schwartzel, who birdied the final four holes on the final day to win that tournament (no one had ever done that before, either). Or a similarly dominating performance at last year’s British Open by Louis Oosthuizen (and if you want to really start a spirited debate with those dazzled by McIlroy’s win, have them check out this:http://espn.go.com/espn/grantland/story/_/id/6680477/relative-dominance). Or the brave win by Martin Kaymer at last year’s PGA at Whistling Straits (Dustin Johnson’s blunder/screwjob notwithstanding).

Rory McIlroy is a part of the next generation of potentially outstanding golfers who grew up watching (and were no doubt inspired by) the play of Tiger Woods (and maybe Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Darren Clarke . . .) and benefited from improved instruction (the likelihood of a Jim Furyk-styled swing ever emerging again seems pretty remote), broader playing opportunities, and, yes, improved technology. Aside from his undeniable youthful appeal, he has posted sick numbers on some very respectable tracks, appears to have an unlimited ceiling, and will certainly be a favorite at Royal St. George’s next month.

He also, at this point, has won the same number of major tournaments as Furyk, Mark Brooks, Fred Couples, Davis Love, Orville Moody, Jerry Barber, the Hebert brothers (individually), Sean McKeil, and those mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago (on the other hand, he’s won more than Collin Montgomery or Sergio Garcia, so there’s that . . .).

Golf is a peculiar and often cruel game (just ask Greg Norman). I applaud young McIlroy for his great victory; a win at the British would certainly cement his reputation and maybe even make people forget about TW for awhile. But it’s useful to remember that when Tiger made his initial mark at Augusta, it was more than two years later that he broke through on his next major, the 1999 PGA at Medinah. My biggest hope for Rory is that he keeps a level head, maintains his desire, and enjoys whatever success he attains in the game on his own terms, not on the expectations of others. In this age of instant fame, hype, and gratification, it might be too much to ask.