It started even before he put a peg in the ground for the weekend rounds at the 111th U.S. Open. The “next” Tiger. They couldn’t resist—the numbers from 2000 and Pebble Beach all pulled from the archives. As the lead grew, the superlatives proliferated all the more. At 22 with the U.S. Open title within reach, Rory McIlroy would remedy the issues of golf’s galaxy without a sun to spin around.
On Sunday, ‘before’ he had made it official, a respected golf journalist tweeted McIlroy had the charisma of Palmer and the best swing since Nelson and Snead. Within minutes of the win, his surrogate older brother in the game, Graeme McDowell, repeated what he had said before, that McIlroy was the most talented player he had ever seen. He then added, he never had a chance to see Tiger Woods in his prime, simultaneously anointing the 22 year old and assigning Woods to the backside of his career.
In the interview room afterwards, a media type actually asked the new champion if he had thought about winning the next three majors and completing the slam. And Padraig Harrington predicted Nicklaus’ 18 majors would fall to the new Irish hero.
It was almost as if those in the game observing the moment were becoming delusional, having gone through the DT’s of a Woods withdrawal, not from the U.S. Open, but from the Olympus on which he had been placed.
Let me try to bring a sober and measured response to the hysteria and tell you Rory McIlroy will NOT be the next Tiger Woods. And that is a good thing. There will not be a next Tiger in the person of McIlroy or any other spectacular player to come along, because Tiger Woods was a happening as much as he has been a player. He was the greatest confluence of performance and persona the game of golf had ever seen. Simply put, Tiger Woods was the Beatles and no one has ever replaced the Fab Four.
What Rory McIlroy may very well become is the next great player in the game. We don’t need another Tiger. Golf didn’t flourish with Woods. Tiger flourished. The PGA Tour didn’t grow, it simply rode Woods coattails and now is struggling to restore validity to the remaining players they were so content to leave back in coach. What McIlroy may become is the “anti-Tiger”— a player more in the tradition of Nicklaus.
What many may fail to remember is that while Nicklaus was rewriting the record book in golf’s majors early in his career, he was doing so in the endorsement shadow of Arnold Palmer. Nicklaus became an acquired taste for the golfing public, aged like a vintage wine and then discovered by the masses. Jack didn’t hitch his trousers or toss his visor. He just won and won and won.
Let’s hope for that from the young Irishman.
When Tiger broke through for his first major win at Augusta, his father Earl was there to inform the world that he would be in the ranks of Ghandi. I looked around the interview room as McIlroy maturely deflected the invitation to exaggeration and couldn’t find his father Gerry holding an “Earl” conference, and I hope he never does.
Dan Reardon has covered 75 major championships, five Ryder Cups, dozens of PGA, LPGA and Senior PGA Tour events. Visit CBS Local St. Louis for additional golf coverage.