Rory McIlroy was mostly joking recently when he said he’d love to face Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup so he could “kick his ass.” Woods seemed to take the joke in the fun tone that it was intended, but it’s starting to feel like a prediction that’s bound to come true.
And Woods is not alone. Not only did McIlroy kick Tiger’s tail in his runaway PGA Championship victory and again on Monday in the Deutsche Bank Championship, but he’s also kicking the rear ends of everyone in golf.
Does this feel like the start of a new era or what? The correct answer is, yes.
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The scary part is that McIlroy didn’t even have his best stuff Monday. He hit some ugly shots during the final round, including on the par-4 17th hole, where he put three straight shots in jail and did well to escape with only a bogey. Yet McIlroy still edged Louis Oosthuizen by one stroke, Tiger by two and everyone else by a bunch. With two FedEx Cup playoff events left, McIlroy is now on top of the standings and in perfect position to win the $10 million prize.
Remember when we were debating whether Tiger was a serious Player of the Year candidate without winning a major championship? At the time, he was the only player who had won three times this year, but none of them were majors. That made him the POY leader in the clubhouse.
That debate is over now. McIlroy has matched Tiger’s three wins, and one of them was a major, the PGA Championship. Now McIlroy is pretty much a lock.
McIlroy isn’t just ahead of schedule, what with three big wins this year and two major titles at the age of 23, he’s head and shoulders above the pack. This does not qualify as a news flash: Rory is good.
Woods made a nice front-nine charge Monday, but so did McIlroy, who breezed past an ailing Oosthuizen, who tweaked a pectoral muscle in Sunday’s third round and appeared to have problems with it early in the final. Oosthuizen fell back in the middle of the round as McIlroy raced ahead, but then the South African rallied and made it close.
Oosthuizen actually had a quick downhill birdie putt on the final hole to force a playoff, but he narrowly missed. Moments earlier, McIlroy’s clinching birdie putt dangled precipitously on the cup’s lip while an anxious Rory bit his putter grip. It didn’t fall, but Oosthuizen missed, too.
“He’s not world No. 1 for nothing,” Oosthuizen said. “He’s a great young talent. He’s such a cool guy on the course. It’s great playing with him. He makes tough shots look really easy sometimes, especially long irons. He’s a great player.”
McIlroy had a breakthrough year in 2011 when he romped to a U.S. Open title. Now, his 2012 is even better.
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“To get to world No. 1, back up a major-winning season with another major this year, three wins on the PGA Tour, this year has been a big year for me,” McIlroy said.
Last week was a big week for other reasons, too. There were at least four non-FedEx Cup-related things to take away from this Deutsche Bank Championship:
For starters, there’s the Case of the Never-On-Sunday Tiger. Woods has suffered from a well-known inability to play as well on Sundays as he has in the first two rounds. Maybe the calendar helped here, as Woods was four under par on the front nine during the final round, which was played on Monday because of the Deutsche Bank’s unique Labor Day weekend schedule. Woods hit some superb shots during the finale and at one point on the front nine even flashed a little of the old Tiger flair when he confidently walked in a key birdie putt.
“My game is starting to come around,” Woods said after the finish. “I’m really pleased the way I rolled it. I hit so many good putts all week. My short game has felt really good this entire summer. I’ve done some good work at home, and it’s starting to pay off.”
Second, the reports of Phil Mickleson’s golfing demise were once again premature. The erstwhile lefthander went to a form of the claw putting grip, and he played his way onto the first page of the leader board in the final round, although not actually into contention. This is significant because Mickelson has played poorly of late, and his sudden rise could mean he’ll be a big contributor for the U.S. Ryder Cup team after all.
“The last couple of weeks, I’ve started to piece my game back together,” Mickelson said. “The irons have been good, the putter is getting to where I want it to be, and I’ve been driving the ball well. So the pieces are finally there.”
The fourth-place finish was Mickelson’s best since he tied for third in the Masters, which he could’ve won if not for a pair of triple bogeys. In short, there’s hope for Phil. That’s potentially huge for the Ryder Cup.
Third, Dustin Johnson’s sudden return to form gives U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love another weapon. The question is whether Johnson’s good week overshadows a poor putting day in the final round. Johnson’s power makes him a player you probably want on the team on a big course like Medinah, but do you go with big hitters or putters? Love has to make that call on Tuesday. At least Johnson’s late-summer rush got him into the conversation.
Finally, there’s the issue of a rival for McIlroy. We’re assuming, perhaps wrongly, that Woods may be too old for such a recurring role. There have been golf experts touting a possible Rickie-Rory matchup, which would be sensational for the public. Rickie Fowler is already one of the biggest American stars after Woods and Mickelson, even though he’s won only one tournament.
The Deutsche Bank offered a reminder that one grossly overlooked player is the quiet but oft-smiling Oosthuizen. His swing is as good as anyone’s in the game and, by the way, he’s already won one major, the 2010 British Open in a runaway. He nearly snagged a second one earlier this year at the Masters, where in the final round he became the first player in tournament history to make double eagle on the par-5 second hole. He lost in a playoff to Bubba Watson, but here he was again on Monday, just outside Boston and in the thick of contention.
Oosthuizen’s swing is sweet and fluid and powerful and built to last. His muscle injury clearly affected his tee shots in the final round, but he still made it close. Critics would say Oosthuizen, like fellow South African Charl Schwartzel, hasn’t piled up enough wins to be merit consideration as a rival for McIlroy. But you have to love the swings of both South Africans.
Oosty and Rory? Rory and Oosty? Did we just watch the first round of a long-running, juicy rivalry?
We should be so lucky.