Warning: if you don’t like comparisons of Rory McIlroy with Jack, Tiger, Hogan and other all-time greats, please change the channel now.
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Rory McIlroy staked his claim as the best player in the world, running away from the field at the 2012 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. McIlroy posted a blemish-free round of 66 to finish at 13-under par. In doing so, he broke more records than a DJ in an earthquake. He broke Nicklaus’ record for margin of victory in a PGA Championship and became the youngest to win the PGA Championship in the post-World War II era (besting Jack by three months) and secured two major victories four months earlier than Tiger Woods.
Physically, he’s smaller than Michelle Wie. But when he’s on, he is the longest hitter on the Tour and arguably the longest pound for pound hitter in the history of the game. He has touch around the greens, a precise and creative short game, and has displayed a mastery of the flat stick evidenced by the paltry 24 putts that he needed to get around Kiawah on Sunday. Like Nicklaus and Woods before him, he excels when the spotlight is brightest. And if you replace two rounds of 80 with two par rounds, he’d have the career Grand Slam right now today.
The iconic golfers of the past thirty years are Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods. These are the players that not only won; they won in a way that made other people want to play like them. Nicklaus’s ability, Norman’s majesty and Seve’s joy are all apparent in the young champion from Northern Ireland. McIlrory was close to being a cautionary tale after his final round meltdown in the 2011 Masters, but he used that as incentive in winning the very next major in runaway fashion.
Both experiences were put to use this week, but as McIlroy admits, “The failure helped me more. I learned what I had to do to win in these situations and to achieve the things that I want to achieve.”
What do you get when you combine precocious talent with a helping of grace and maturity? The future.
The Golf Channel’s Steve Sands asked McIlroy his definition of the difference between success and greatness. The question gave McIlroy more trouble than anything he faced on the course on Sunday.
“Success is winning tournaments, and greatness…, uh, well, it’s hard to say.”
The men and women in the pantheon, and those who aspired to it and fell short, know the answer. Success is a moment in time, a comparative snapshot where an individual achieves what he or she always wanted to but maybe never believed that they could do. It’s being in the right place in the right time. It’s often as much luck as skill. Greatness is success squared, achievement over a sustained period of time. It’s when they stop comparing you to other players and start comparing others to you.
Tiger Woods has lived most of his career being compared to Jack. The next phase may find him more often or more accurately compared to Arnie. After winning six major championships starting with the 1958 Masters Palmer won his seventh, the 1964 Masters at the age of 34. That victory was his 43rd on Tour, and he went on to win another 19 times on Tour. But he never won another major. And there is no doubt that the appearance of a young Jack Nicklaus hastened Palmer’s decline.
Woods has three victories on Tour this year, and has the top spot in the FedEx and Ryder Cup standings, putting him in contention for Player of the Year honors. But it has now been four years since his last major championship victory. He is clearly more in control of his latest swing iteration, but the fact that he did not shoot an under par round in a major on the weekend this year raises words like “nerves” and “fragile” from observers.
Woods stunned reporters by saying that he was “too relaxed” during the critical third round pretty much sealed his fate. The only plausible explanation for the most intense competitor since Hogan trying to whistle a happy tune during a major championship is that he was trying to control his nerves. It is said that Palmer never won another major after he quit smoking. Tiger has added and subtracted so many parts that its hard to pick one that would be the key. He has always been a man in flux, but the variables were always of his choosing. Now, most of the changes that have taken place (age, scandal, injury) are not of his choosing and not under his control. Surely, Woods will win going forward and will be a factor when the lights shine brightest. But McIlroy seems to be to Tiger what Nicklaus was to Palmer, a force of nature blowing into what once was calm and orderly.
There are only two current players in the world under 40 with two majors; Woods and McIlroy. It will be fascinating to watch them walk together for a period. For Woods, McIlroy is both a mirror and a clock. Rory is a reflection of the inspiration that Woods instilled in young golfers all over the world with every scintillating moment in his career. And he is also a stopwatch, a ticking timer in Woods’ ear, reminding him that even for the best that ever lived, all glory is temporary.