Augusta, Ga. – He became known internationally as a teen phenom, became the top-ranked player in the world, dated an internationally famous female athlete, embraced weightlifting and strung together an impressive run of major championships at a remarkably young age.
That description fits Tiger Woods.
Add the phrase “ … and is favored to win The Masters this week,” and that description no longer fits Woods.
It fits only Rory McIlroy.
This might sound strange, and for passionate golf fans it might seem obvious, but to spend a couple of days at Augusta National in preparation for the 2015 Masters is to feel compelled to offer a couple of reminders about McIlroy:
• He’s the top-ranked player in the world.
• He is trying to become the first player to win three consecutive major championships since Woods in 2000 and 2001, and Woods is the only player since Bobby Jones in 1930 to win three or more in a row.
• A victory this week would make McIlroy, at 25, the second-youngest golfer in history to achieve the career grand slam. Tiger Woods was 24 when he did it.
• A victory would give McIlroy his fifth major title, tying him with Phil Mickelson in that category.
When Woods’ career faltered, golf fans begged for a worthy replacement. McIlroy has been exactly that. He has a chance to become one of the greatest golfers of all time. But in the highly unscientific measurement of “buzz,” he seems to generate little more than Dustin Johnson or Jordan Spieth, neither of whom has won a major.
McIlroy is the great young player golf fans craved, but he has not and might never be the golfing celebrity Woods is.
Which speaks more to the uniqueness of Woods than any failings of McIlroy’s.
When Woods won four consecutive majors, we called it The Tiger Slam, and then every time he won another, we wondered whether he could put another four-major winning streak together.
McIlroy has won two majors in a row and is favored to win a third, but no one is inventing nicknames for his accomplishments.
“It is such a big story, Tiger coming back to the Masters after a bit of a lengthy period when he has not been around,” McIlroy said. “I don’t feel any less or any more attention because he’s here. You know, it’s great that he’s here. Does it give people something else to talk about? Yes. But I’m not necessarily listening to anything that anyone is saying, so it doesn’t make a difference to me.”
McIlroy might have found a sweet spot of sports celebrity. He’s successful enough to make lots of money in endorsements, but his lack of mainstream celebrity means he can break up with Caroline Wozniacki without becoming a fixture on the cover of American grocery store tabloids. He has overslept at tournaments and thrown clubs without anyone questioning whether he represents the decline of civility in the gentlemen’s game.
Maybe because he’s from Ireland, or doesn’t look like a male model, he has become a great golfer without being asked to be anything more than a golfer.
He and Woods are different in terms of career achievements as well. Woods’ first major title came at Augusta in 1997. McIlroy has won every major but the Masters.
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee blames McIlroy’s less-than-ideal footwork, which might hamper him when playing on Augusta National’s hills. McIlroy has played holes 10 and 11 in 18 over par in his six Masters starts. Last year, despite driving the ball well, he played the par 5s in even par.
“Bubba played them at 8 under, and I lost to him by eight shots,” McIlroy said of last year’s winner, Bubba Watson.
McIlroy made four bogeys on par 5s last year, even when using a 9-iron on his second shot. “If you look at all of the previous winners here, they played the par 5s well,” he said. “If I can just play the par 5s a little better, hopefully that will help me do better and obviously have a chance to win.”
McIlroy ranked third on the PGA Tour last year in driving distance (310.5 yards). His long, high ball flight seems ideal for Augusta National, especially if the course is wet.
“This is a golf course that is very well-suited to Rory,” Mickelson said. “He almost won here a couple of years ago — he was leading heading into the back nine. With the type of length and ball-striking he has, and his putting touch, I think this is a course he will be tough on for the rest of his career. I’m sure he’ll win. Whether it’s this week or not, you just never know.”
Somehow McIlroy has made himself the next Tiger Woods without being identified as such. It’s good work, if you can get it.