By Michael Williams
Special to GolfWRX
Sports debate is driven by fact but the destination is an opinion. Even when the scoreboard is clear cut, there are varying conclusions that can be drawn about who is the best, as opposed to who was better on a given day.
By 6 p.m. on Sunday, two conclusions were clear by fact and reasonably informed opinion; Rory McIlroy is the best player in the world. And Tiger Woods is still the most important player in the word. These two were finally linked in competition rather than idle conversation and hopefully the world can look forward to them drafting off each other like a couple of stock cars for the foreseeable future.
McIlroy finally succeeded in assuming the top world ranking, an occurrence with all the inevitability of day following night. He roamed the Jack Nicklaus layout with equal parts fire and ice. He hit prodigious drives and laser-like irons into the stiff Florida winds to pins that were hidden like Easter eggs. And on the rare occasions where his full swing failed him, his short game came to the rescue. McIlroy’s wedge and bunker play had been a perceived weakness; this week, it was razor sharp. And he saved par time after time with putts of six to eight feet, a pre-requisite for the best player in the world. As the wax wings of journeyman Tom Gillis and the other contenders began to melt on the back nine on Sunday, it appeared that the prince would become the King without dispute.
And then, after two years of being Eldrick Woods, Eldrick suddenly became Tiger again. Woods’ ball-striking had been good in recent outings; on Sunday it was superb. The last time Woods led a tournament in driving distance, McIlroy was sweating his 8th grade science project, but Woods did it this week. He also led the field in a stat called Proximity to the Hole … stop it … which essentially means that he was hitting his drives far and his irons close. He finally put together a round of solid ball-striking and lights out putting, and most significantly he did it on Sunday. And you could almost hear the sound of televisions switching to watch a routine PGA Tour event, made special because the most talked about athlete since Michael Jordan was doing that thing he does. When Tiger is at his best, it’s not just a sporting event. It’s a social event.
Tiger and Rory both fit the profile of the golf titans: They won early in their careers, they win often, and they win important. And if the gods are smiling, they can add one more facet of glory to each other with every event they participate in together: they can win against each other. You got the feeling yesterday that after losing sight of Nicklaus’ legacy, which for so long had been his aim point on the horizon, Tiger had found a closer target. If he was to be the once and future King, he needed to vanquish this new knight. And he very nearly did, and he went about it in the fashion that makes Tiger an amalgamation of the best qualities of the best players who ever lived. He was long like Nicklaus, precise like Jones, relentless like Hogan. And on the par five 18th, blasting a mid-iron 220 yards to eight feet and then dropping the eagle putt to put up a career final-round best 62, he could only be compared to himself.
And McIlroy, this improbably gifted young player, showed that behind the tousled mop of hair and the Gerber baby cheeks are a will and determination to match the ability and the ambition. McIlroy had to protect a wafer-thin two shot lead through the Bear Trap, arguably the toughest stretch of holes anywhere on Tour. And there was no doubt that he knew what was happening, as the echoes of each step in Woods’ assault was punctuated with the roars of the grateful crowd. But where McIlroy had been spectacular on previous days, he was wise and cunning on Sunday. He protected par like a jealous boyfriend, making his number from deep rough, treacherous sand and wayward locations on the greens. On No. 18, he opted for rational rather than remarkable, laying up in the fairway and easing into his par and the championship like fighter pilot making a routing landing, preserving his two shot lead and the championship.
Maverick and Iceman, indeed.
I admit I got emotional watching on Sunday. I was happy for both McIlroy’s ascendance and Woods’ resurgence. I was even happy for Gillis, who sank a putt that tied him with Woods for second, won him about $200,000 additional dollars and validated the career ticket he’d been carrying for 15 years. But the source of the chills that I felt was the fact these two battling for supremacy had made the Honda Classic seem like the fifth major. Augusta awaits, ready to play leading lady to these supreme actors. Both of them seek dominance in posterity and in the now. Tiger never had the chance to compete against Nicklaus in his prime; he could only use Nicklaus’ record as a road map on a journey he was making solo. It appears that another traveler is in view and while Tiger may get there first, Rory has intentions of matching him step for step. And because he is doing so against Woods, the entire world will be watching. Not only to see him win, but to see him try to do it against the best of this or possibly any other generation. Oh, and Mickelson will probably be there, too.
To coin a phrase, I can’t wait.
Michael Williams is the contributing editor of Newschannel8 Capital Golf Weekly and Bunkershot.com, as well as a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.
You can follow Michael on twitter — @Michaelontv