To see Rory McIlroy in his earliest days as a golfer, check out the home video on his website. It was taken on McIlroy's third birthday, in May 1992, and it shows him swinging a club in his family's living room in Northern Ireland -- same rhythm, same shoulder turn, same stylish follow-through. He's a natural.
To see McIlroy in the comparatively early days of his professional career, check him out in this week's U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. McIlroy arrives as the game's golden boy and the Open's defending champion, an uber-talented 23-year-old who ruthlessly crushed the field in winning his first major title last June.
To see McIlroy in the future, measured against golf's all-time greats -- well, that makes for intriguing conversation.
It's tempting to compare McIlroy to Tiger Woods -- one won the Masters by 12 shots at age 21 and the other won the U.S. Open by eight shots at age 22. Woods overpowered courses in those days, as McIlroy often does, and augmented the power with a soft touch around the greens, another McIlroy tool.
But Woods never missed nine cuts in one year, as McIlroy did on the European Tour in 2008. Woods never missed three consecutive cuts as a pro, as McIlroy recently did.
And Woods never publicly questioned his own commitment, as McIlroy did in trying to explain his little skid. He acknowledged not working on his game as hard as he could have for a few weeks, startling words from the world's No. 2 player -- though completely understandable from a fun-loving, 23-year-old with other interests.
That balance could help McIlroy enjoy a long and prosperous career. NBC analyst Johnny Miller, who sought similar balance during his playing days, also wonders if it might prevent McIlroy from posting Tiger-like win totals.
"He surely could dominate," Miller said. "It's hard to know what's inside a player. You see a guy like Gary Player and he hit a lot of balls. Rory does, too. But what you don't see is that insatiable fire and whether he determines his self-worth by winning championships. ... I think Rory is a lot like I was -- he wants to win and he'd like to win more, but I don't think he has the Gary Player in him."
McIlroy made his ability plain to see during a stretch of four majors from July 2010 to last June. He tied for third in the British Open and PGA Championship in 2010 (at age 21), then came back the next year and led the Masters for three days -- before a final-round implosion -- and won the U.S. Open in a rout at Congressional.
McIlroy has struggled in the three majors since, including a tie for 40th at the Masters in April. Still, the joyride at Congressional illustrated his unmistakable resemblance to Woods.
"Tiger was my inspiration, growing up and watching him do all the unbelievable stuff he did -- winning majors by 12, by 15, just destroying fields," McIlroy said at last month's PGA Tour event in Charlotte, N.C. "I think a lot of guys my age would have similar things to say about growing up watching Tiger."
That tournament in Charlotte offered glimpses into what makes McIlroy special. He eventually lost to Rickie Fowler in a playoff.
David Toms played alongside McIlroy for two days in Charlotte, his inaugural firsthand view of the boy wonder. Toms was impressed, marveling at the tempo and speed of McIlroy's swing.
Asked what separates McIlroy from the many players who hit the ball a country mile, Toms said: "Just the way he's able to score when he's not on his best game. You could tell he wasn't his best out there ... but he still managed his way around. That's what you have to do to be a great player."
14-year-old gets in
Paul Casey withdrew from the U.S. Open, paving the way for a 14-year-old from China to be what officials believe to be the youngest player in championship history.
Andy Zhang, who lost in a playoff at a sectional qualifier in Florida, is now entered. Tadd Fujikawa previously was the youngest in the modern era. He was 15 when he qualified for the 2006 U.S. Open.