It has been six years since Tiger Woods has held a trophy on Sunday at a major championship. During those six years, it became apparent that while Tiger needed golf, golf needed Tiger even more. If Tiger played, people watched. If he didn’t, there were more important things to do. Sports fans appreciate great, not good. People turn on the TV for Kevin Durant, Richard Sherman and Clayton Kershaw, not Swaggy P or Tony Romo. Tiger, at his best was a great golfer. On the other hand, most golfers who happen to win any given tournament just play marginally better than everyone else in the field; good enough, but not great.
As Tiger struggled with his personal issues, injuries, and confidence, the golf world waited. They waited for someone to fill his shoes. No one stepped up. Phil can’t win the US Open. Bubba only shows up for the Masters. Dustin Johnson was too busy getting coked up. Jordan Speith was too young. Rory McIlroy looked like the most promising candidate, but many had written him off. He had his moments of greatness, like when he lapped the field at Congressional on the way to winning the US Open. If the perfect swing exists, it is his. Yet too many problems remained. He choked at the Masters. He had trouble adjusting to Nike clubs when he signed a sponsorship deal with the company. And then there was the girl. McIlroy was dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and while they both seemed to have perfect personal lives, both of their games struggled. But then something crazy happened. Rory saw his wedding invitation, freaked out, broke up his marriage, and seemed to completely devote himself to golf. He then reminded the world why it once thought he could be the next Tiger.
This season Rory has played 16 events, made 15 cuts, made 10 top 10’s, won four tournaments, is ranked number one in the world, and has made over seven million dollars in PGA Tour events alone. Oh, and he also won two major tournaments. His first came at Royal Liverpool where he won the Open Championship in dominant fashion, never allowing the field to challenge him in the tournament’s final two days. While he may not have been Tiger at the ‘97 Masters, Rory looked like the only choice for the best player in the world. He won his second major of the year at the PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he shot in the 60’s for all four days and outplayed Mickelson down the stretch to win. This all came after a 2013 which saw McIlroy manage only five top-10s and zero wins.
Where he onced faced questions of whether he would ever win another major, the conversation on Rory has already turned to the question of when he will surpass Tiger and Jack Nicklaus’ career major win totals. At only 25, Rory already has 4 majors to his name. Tiger had only one more at that age. He has almost completed a career slam (winning all four major championships), lacking only a victory at the Masters. Nicklaus has been quoted as saying that he believes that Rory can win 15 to 20 majors depending on his “priorities.”
Most Tiger fans, myself included, find Rory’s coming out party to be a somewhat painful experience. As we watch Tiger miss cut after cut and struggle with injury after injury, it becomes more and more apparent that he faces an uphill battle to break Jack’s record. That itself is hard enough without having to think about the idea of Rory doing it instead. Anyone who thinks that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, no questions asked, isn’t willing to entertain the idea that Lebron might be in the same stratosphere. People who worship Maradona will always view Messi as inferior, no matter what he does. In the same way, Tiger fans will always struggle with Rory. And yet, this comparison has one caveat. MJ and Maradona fans do not need to move on, but Tiger fans might have to for the sake of the game. Golf is dying as a spectator sport. Golf needs Tiger, but if Tiger cannot step up to the plate, it now needs Rory. People used to turn on the TV for Tiger. And now with Woods failing to produce, they need to watch again, and what better reason than to see McIlroy win majors? Tiger fans do not necessarily need to love Rory McIlroy, but if golf is to stay relevant, it needs its next superstar. We can hope that one day the old Tiger Woods will come back, but it might be time to wake and realize that as each year passes, the chances of that happening grow slimmer and slimmer. Rory finally seems ready to carry the mantle of being a great golfer, but are we ready to give it to him? Unless we accept that Rory is closest thing we are going to get to Tiger, the game we love will slowly die.
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