Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rory Needs Tiger To Become King

If you've been following golf over the past year, you knew it was a matter of when, not if, Rory McIlroy would break through and win a major. While much hype and talk, deservedly so, went to Rory's Masters meltdown in April, he proved he had the mettle to win a major in 2010.

He kicked off the 2010 British Open with a stunning 63 on St. Andrews' Old Course. Thanks to a confluence of terrible events – namely a late tee time and a Friday afternoon monsoon – Rory followed up his brilliant effort with an 80. But unlike so many young stars that are defeated by Mother Nature in a British Open, McIlroy didn't quit. He kept playing golf at the highest level though his chances to win were nil. He finished that week tied for 3rd with an insane four rounds that looked like this: 63-80-69-68. Yep, that's zero rounds in the 70s. He finished eight shots behind eventual winner Louis Oosthuizen, who was the second tee time off Friday morning and completely avoided the wind.

Last year's PGA Championship is remembered for what happened at the end, when Dustin Johnson made one of the largest brain farts in sports history* and ground his club in a bunker to miss a playoff. Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, two worthy winners, battled it out in a three-hole playoff. What is forgotten is both the thrilling conclusion to the event, when it seemed like every guy for an hour had a chance to win the tournament, and the play on 18 by Rory McIlroy. If you forget, the 18th hole at Whistling Straits is an absolute brute that was playing more than a half-stroke over par on Sunday. McIlroy needed a birdie. Of all the players that came down the stretch needing to do something, McIlroy needed a birdie and he put his approach shot closer than anyone. Though he missed the 25-footer, he proved right then that there was not going to be a moment to big for him. He had the game. He had the moxie.

*Since I don't have sidebars like that fancy Grantland.com site, let me reiterate how stupid Dustin Johnson was for grounding his club. Right before he did so, CBS showed their shot tracker and had the ball clearly in a sand trap. The ball was also obviously on sand. I don't care if there were leaves, other people or a tree growing, if there's sand, you don't ground your club. If I'm playing with my three buddies for absolutely nothing on a lazy Friday afternoon and my ball is on sand, I ask my friends, “Hey, is this a sandtrap?” That's all he had to do – ask somebody. He didn't. He melted under the pressure by not thinking. I have zero faith Dustin Johnson will ever win a major. Now back to our regularly scheduled column...

When Rory McIlroy melted down at Augusta, it became golf's major talking point for the next three months. It certainly became the major talking point over the weekend of the U.S. Open since it was readily apparent no one was going to catch him. Was the setup at Congressional too easy? Probably. Did the rest of the field concede the tournament Friday afternoon? It sure felt like it. But as Rory was making his way through a coronation of a back nine, my father made the astute point that I have to imagine more than a few people were thinking:

“Imagine if Tiger was playing.”

Tiger Woods could be ranked #1, #17, or #117 in the world, it doesn't really matter. He's still the measuring stick. During his absence, we saw a cavalcade of good to great players step up and win a major. We saw Luke Donald and Lee Westwood trade the #1 spot back and forth. We saw the emergence of Bubba Watson. Golf is in a good place. But it's not in a great place because despite Tiger's absence, injuries and poor play, no one made a push for the throne of world's best golfer. Phil may still be our favorite but at 41 with four majors, you get the feeling Phil is probably content with his lot in life, as you would be too. The Europeans have been good, but never made a serious push. That is, until Rory.

Now Rory McIlroy has stood up and for the first time since Phil rattled off consecutive majors (2005 PGA & 2006 Masters) we have a legitimate contender for someone to dethrone Tiger Woods as the greatest player alive. Yet all it does is reveal how badly golf needs Tiger Woods to return.

The ratings for PGA tournaments this year have improved, although you could argue they almost had to improve since bottoming out the past two years. There are a number of young golfers that are poised to break out and replace Tiger and Phil in the public's consciousness of golf. But they're not there yet. Even Rory McIlroy, for all his greatness, needs Tiger Woods to make himself a household name.

As someone who loves golf, I'll be at the Travelers Championship this weekend. I'll watch all four rounds of every major because that's what I do. But it's not the same when Tiger Woods isn't around. It's never the same when the undisputed king of the sport isn't there. It's great that Rory lapped the field. It's great that Rory made a definitive statement. It's great that golf may have a new superstar, a golfer whose game will elevate him to the single name club – Arnie, Jack, Seve, Tiger, Phil....Rory? But for him to get there, he doesn't need to beat the 155 guys he pounded into submission last weekend. He needs to beat one man. Until he does, the tune remains the same....

“Imagine if Tiger was playing.”

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