It’s difficult to consider Rory McIlroy and the pro golf world in terms other than this: His time, his stage. After all, we are only a few months removed from the young man’s furious blitz to put a stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking — raising the Claret Jug at Hoylake, winning in the dark to claim a second PGA Championship, prevailing for a second time as king of the European Tour — so it appears coherent enough to expect a seamless continuation in 2015.
With the mere mention of a new golf season, it’s likely that visions of magnolias and azaleas come to mind. After all, nothing ignites anticipation for golf during these dreary winter days as thinking about Augusta National and the vaunted Masters. All of which leads us to the slice of the McIlroy story that is at the forefront. But before one starts thinking that he’s a lock to complete the career Grand Slam in four months time, step back a moment and consider that 2015 will be the 10th anniversary of Tiger Woods’ 2005 victory.
It came in a play-off over Chris DiMarco and merely reconfirmed what was gospel — Woods was the premier player in the game, the best of his generation, a veritable behemoth. The closest thing to unbeatable that golf had ever seen, Woods — just 29 — had won his fourth green jacket in his ninth Masters appearance as a pro and to grasp the magnitude of that, the great Jack Nicklaus needed 11 pro trips to win four times.
Back then, not only was Woods winning in ways in which no one else ever had, there seemed to be no end to what he was capable of doing. That, of course, makes the current landscape incomprehensible. When in four months he arrives amid the usual pomp and media fawning, Woods will be riding an unthinkable skid — he has failed to win the Masters in his last eight trips and when you factor in his no-show last April (back surgery), it’s been 10 years since he last got fitted for a green jacket.
So, before one thinks that McIlroy is a lock to win the 2015 Masters, ponder Woods’ drought. Then ask yourself: Has the man who seemingly could only win inexplicably lost his way at Augusta? And when you toss that around, ask yourself this: Has the man who seemingly is poised to win ready to learn from the way he lost?
Woods and McIlroy. Dominating topics now and even more so come April. But in all due respect to the aura of Woods, the enormous shadow he casts no longer covers McIlroy. The pride of Ireland has established himself as the game’s best, maybe not yet a behemoth, but certainly it is his time, his stage. When we arrive at the 2015 Masters, it will not be about Woods halting his losing ways; it will be about McIlroy starting his winning habit.
For whatever the reasons in 2013 — be it the adjustment to Nike clubs or the globe-trotting and suffocating relationship with Carolina Wozniacki — it’s safe to say that McIlroy’s off-year was not owed to a lack of talent. That he seemed to rediscover his strut just after calling off the wedding in May of 2014 was perhaps not so good for romanticists, but it was massive for professional golf.
McIlroy is someone around whom pro golf can expand its fan base; he’s an antidote to those who are tired of Woods’ angry expressions and surly demeanour. Though McIlroy has been known to sulk on occasion and be prone to moodiness, he’s generally a polite young man who smiles, exhibits graciousness, and displays ahumanness that Woods never has.
The timing of McIlroy’s emergence as a global force has been exquisite because as incomparable as Woods is, he is no match for the greatest challenge to his career. “Father Time,” Woods recently said, “is undefeated.”
It is one thing to turn 39, as Woods did last Tuesday, December 30. It is another thing to go forward at 39 on a surgically-repaired back, rebuilt knees, a damaged ego, and all the bad swing thoughts that have plagued him. At the same time, the fallout from his personal-life meltdown in 2009-10 has left Woods a polarising figure. Many golf fans still revel over the breathtaking play that won 14 Major championships between 1997 and 2008 and refuse to consider that Woods might not ever return to those dominating ways; there are plenty others, however, who have judged Woods harshly on moral grounds, and having delighted in his fall from grace, they don’t want to see him succeed.
Noise-makers on both sides of the debate. But perched firmly in the middle with an ability to drown out the foolishness, here is one man’s view of things: McIlroy well above the crowd, with no consideration that Woods is a main challenger. He is not. Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Jason Day. Younger, stronger, and more likely than Woods to chase the kid from Holywood, all of them, but none will alter the reality that this is McIlroy’s time, McIlroy’s stage.
Entertaining as the storyline was last summer when Phil Mickelson had a chance to win the US Open and complete the career Grand Slam, it’s a more legitimate one this time around with McIlroy and the Masters.
That at the age of 25 he could join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Woods as the only players to win all four of golf’s Major championships would cement McIlroy’s stature.
You may get reminders that Woods completed the career Grand Slam in his 15th major as a professional (the Masters will be McIlroy’s 25th major) and that the kid lags behind his Nike teammate in career achievements.
True, but this is about the here and now, and on that front there is no hesitation to put McIlroy at the front of the crowd.
Especially with what returned in 2014 — his strut, his assuredness, and, yes, his cockiness, which even Nicklaus picked up on and gave his approval to.
That’s because cockiness is imperative in such a solitary effort as golf, though the good news is that with McIlroy, the “cockiness” is equal parts confidence and charm and not a sliver of obnoxiousness.
Two thoughts tug at you when the topic concerns McIlroy and the 2015 Masters.
One, had it not been for that one malady that affected every golfer in history (save for Woods) — i.e. youthful immaturity — McIlroy might have maintained composure on Augusta’s back nine in 2011, played solidly, and won the Masters, thus meaning the career Grand Slam would have been completed last summer at Hoylake.
Two, no matter how many highlights dot his resume — four Majors, season-long championships twice in Europe, a four-win 2014 campaign — it’s troublesome that McIlroy has not learned to navigate Augusta National without causing himself big trouble. That fourth-round 80 in 2011 when he squandered a four-stroke lead through 54 holes was a killer; the 77 and 76 in ’12, the 79 in ’13, and the second-round 77 a year ago weren’t helpers, either.
It’s hard to believe how McIlroy, given his uncanny talents, has just one top 10 (T-8 last year) in six Masters. Even more inexplicable is the way his enormous length hasn’t helped him cash in on Augusta National’s four par 5s. A year ago, McIlroy finished eight strokes behind the second-time winner, Bubba Watson. McIlroy was level par on the par 5s, Watson 8 under — in other words, the eight-stroke difference.
In six visits to Augusta and 22 competitive rounds, McIlroy is 21 under on the par 5s. In six visits and 24 competitive rounds, Watson is 50 under. Surely, that translates into “room for improvement,” and it would be foolhardy to think that McIlroy won’t find some answers. You’d be wise to remember that it was post-Masters last year when McIlroy seemed to ignite a switch and elevate his game an extra gear or two.
Was shedding romantic ties to Wozniacki the key? Who knows, but from May onward, McIlroy exhibited a ferocious competitive side that made his colleagues take note. It wasn’t just that he won two majors, the flagship event on the European Tour, and a World Golf Championship; it was the way in which he went about it.
He demonstrated such a ferocity that even world-class players reassessed things. Scott, for example, drives it as well as anyone and hits it forever, but talked openly of needing to step it up a notch. The Aussie said he could give 10 yards up to McIlroy, but couldn’t afford 20 or more.
For McIlroy, the improved play with his driver in 2014 was stunning and nowhere did it pay dividends as it did at the end of the third round of the Open Championship. Having leaked a little oil, McIlroy squandered a lead and was tied with Fowler when he decided to use that extra gear that he possesses. He slammed brilliant drives at the 16th and 18th, eagled each par-5, went back up by four, and resumed command. Then, in case you thought he sort of fell into those plays, McIlroy in the fourth round of the PGA Championship showed differently.
Again needing to right a listing ship, sitting three behind Rickie Fowler, McIlroy used a 3-wood from 284 yards to set up an eagle putt from inside eight feet at the par-5 10th. It was the highlight of hisfive-under-par effort over the final 12 holes to seal his fourth major title.
It’s the sort of thunder that others may be able to produce on occasion, but not as consistently as McIlroy, and if that rejuvenated fury carries over to Augusta’s par 5s, watch out. His residence atop the Official World Golf Rankings is unquestioned entering 2015 and we shouldn’t expect that to change.
There is legitimate concern that McIlroy seems to be unable to let things roll off him, that he becomes easily detached. He was hurt by inquisitive stories in 2013 that suggested his struggles were tied to a poor decision to jump all-in on Nike clubs and that his youthful charm was evaporating. He seemed cautious as he tiptoed around the media.
Granted, McIlroy isn’t 17 anymore, the infectious personality has become more guarded and business-like, but he remains a likeable soul.
McIlroy, whose ride should pick up steam in Augusta has a long way left on that mountain trip.