Let’s get this straight right from the start: Rory McIlroy is not Tiger Woods. The young lad from Northern Ireland has been groomed to save par, not the world. Thus far his only vice is fast cars, not fast women. Sure, McIlroy has now won two major championships by age 23, like his boyhood idol Woods, but the comparisons pretty much end there.
When Tiger prevailed at the 1999 PGA Championship, to win the second of his 14 majors, he was already a technician and a grinder, exuding maximum effort. Rory is a feel player extraordinaire, and on Sunday at the 94th PGA Championship, during what should have been the most pressure-packed round of his young career, he glided around Kiawah Island’s feared Ocean course with a la-di-da insouciance. Woods’s swing has always been controlled violence. McIlroy’s is pure poetry, maybe the sweetest swing this side of Sam Snead. Even in the prime of his youth Woods had moments of high anxiety during rounds, defined by high-wire recoveries and improbable shotmaking. McIlroy hits it so pure that he can make the game look a little too easy. Throughout his eight-stroke rout—he broke Jack Nicklaus’s 32-year-old tournament record—McIlroy displayed a dazzling all-around game. During a bogeyless first-round 67 he hit 15 greens and was 3 for 3 on sand saves. His third-round 67 was a tour de force with the driver, as he hit 11 fairways and topped the field at 319 yards a pop. On Sunday, McIlroy missed eight greens and got it up and down every time, bookending his tournament with another bogey-free effort, a six-under 66.
And yet the round that said the most about McIlroy’s development was his 75 in high winds last Friday. For all his promise, McIlroy has had his reputation compromised by a pair of 80s that torpedoed major opportunities at the 2010 British Open and, especially, the ’11 Masters, when he blew a four-stroke lead on Sunday. Both times he pushed too hard, undone by inexperience and reckless play. McIlroy began the second round of the PGA a stroke off the lead but didn’t panic even as he played the first 13 holes in four over par. When he stepped to the tee of the par-3 14th, the wind was howling off the right. McIlroy loves to hit a high draw, but over the last few months he has been working hard to perfect a hard cut. He held one beautifully into the breeze, what his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, called “maybe the best shot of the week.” That led to a crucial birdie, and McIlroy added another coming in, holding it together for a 75 on a day when the field averaged 78.1. “I definitely feel as if I’m getting better at handling conditions like that and being able to know when a 74, 75 is a decent score and move on and know that the next day should be better,” he said.
McIlroy is already halfway to the career Grand Slam, which is no surprise—long and straight with a soft touch works pretty much everywhere. His career is destined to be measured against Woods’s, but it is not too early to start thinking about Nicklaus’s epic record of 18 majors; McIlroy is only a few weeks older than Jack was when he bagged his second big one, the 1963 Masters. Can McIlroy get there? “He has always been driven and motivated,” says his friend and mentor, Graeme McDowell. “Now he’s obsessed with being the best he can be.” That may be good enough.
(Related Photos: McIlroy's Career In Pictures)
Certainly it shouldn’t be long before McIlroy picks off his missing majors. He has shown a flair for links golf going back to when he was 16 and shot a course-record 61 on fabled Royal Portrush. He tied for third at the 2010 British Open, opening with a record-tying 63 on the Old Course. His ensuing 80 begat the conventional wisdom that his towering ball flight doesn’t work in the wind. Conquering the breezy Ocean course should finally put that to rest. The Masters is more nettlesome. For two years running young McIlroy has absorbed painful lessons at a tournament that has broken so many hearts. The Ocean course was softened by rain, just as Congressional was for McIlroy’s breakthrough eight-stroke victory at last year’s U.S. Open. He still needs to demonstrate he can master a firm, fiery major championship setup, but the kid has already proved to be a fast learner. Says McDowell, “There’s no course in the world he can’t handle. You’ll see.” Until further notice, McIlroy is the favorite at Augusta for the next couple of decades.
His dominant performance at the PGA is all the more welcome because it ends an unprecedented spell of parity, as 16 consecutive majors had been won by different players. (This has coincided with Woods looking ever more fragile in the tournaments he wants the most; the latest letdown was a third-round 74 to blow himself out of this PGA.) Now that McIlroy has returned to his rightful place at No. 1 in the World Ranking, it’s natural to wonder how his run will compare with that of Woods, who occupied the top spot for the better part of 12 years. McIlroy’s inconsistent play since Congressional has been more about life than golf, as he had to adjust to being a global superstar with a famous girlfriend: Caroline Wozniacki, 23, the former No. 1–ranked tennis player.
Wozzilroy, as the couple has regrettably come to be called, have embarked on a very public romance, hitting tennis balls side by side during an exhibition at a packed Madison Square Garden and dining at the White House and smooching for the cameras at a college football game, merrily tweeting photos all the way. McIlroy has taken a little shrapnel in the golf press for all the gallivanting, but his openness and comfort in the spotlight should help him cope. Woods always seemed to resent his fame, and he became obsessive about his privacy. (With a capital P, that’s the name of his yacht.) The ensuing double life irrevocably altered his career.
“Rory should be having a good time now and again,” says Padraig Harrington. “He deserves it. He needs it. The key is that he does a good job of maintaining balance in his life. But he’s pretty grown-up. I would suggest he’s a bit of an old soul. He tries hard to appear carefree, but he cares deeply about his place in the game. Deeply. So I wouldn’t worry about him becoming sidetracked.”
Evidence of McIlroy’s commitment can be seen poking out of his shirtsleeves, as what used to be spindly, freckled arms are now adorned by actual biceps. Woods overdid his training, pushing his body to the breaking point out of vanity and an attempt to prove his toughness to his Green Beret father. McIlroy’s commitment to fitness began a year and a half ago for more practical reasons. “He needed to strengthen parts of his body,” says McIlroy’s lifelong swing coach, Michael Bannon. “He creates so much power on the downswing, he has so many levers, his lower body and core muscles had to be stronger to stabilize him. And now they are.”
McIlroy has also labored to address the only imperfection in his game, inconsistent putting. The week before the PGA, in Akron, he worked with his old-school short-game coach, Dave Stockton, who offered this simple message: “Trust yourself and have fun out there.” What could be more fun than taking only 23 putts on a major championship Sunday?
McIlroy’s lusty celebration after holing a long birdie putt at the last was only the latest endearing moment from a gent everyone seems to like. He is unlikely to ever work blue on network TV, as Woods often does. “I realize that I am a role model for a lot of people, and a lot of kids do look up to me,” McIlroy says. “I try to do my best in that regard and put myself across as honestly and as modestly as possible.”
But like the young Tiger, McIlroy has learned that at times he needs to be cold-blooded to protect his career. Last fall he made headlines by canning his high-profile agent, Chubby Chandler, because McIlroy felt he was not getting enough care in a large stable of high-profile players. His new agent, Conor Ridge, has become comfortable saying no, albeit in the politest possible manner. “He’s swaddled in cotton wool,” says Ridge. “We’ve cut everything way back. Our job is to cocoon him so he can do what he was put on this earth to do.”
As different as McIlroy and Woods may be, Rory was Tiger-like on Sunday with his ruthless play. McIlroy was playing the par-5 2nd when Ian Poulter birdied his fifth straight hole to start his round. Puffed up with what McDowell calls a “trademark strut,” Poulter had sliced McIlroy’s lead to a lone stroke. After his worst swing of the week, McIlroy was under a tree, his ball on wood chips. But he played an all-world wedge to eight feet and buried the putt for birdie. McIlroy never gave Poulter—or anyone else—another opening.
Even after the outcome was no longer in doubt, he never let up, which was reminiscent of the way Woods grinded so hard during the final round of the 2000 U.S. Open despite a double-digit lead, simply because he had vowed not to make a bogey. “That was a statement,” Keegan Bradley said of McIlroy’s cutthroat final round. “That was a message to the rest of us.”
Harrington was happy to flesh it out: “Tiger turned up for a few years, and if he brought his A-game the rest of us struggled to compete. Rory is showing that with his A-game, everybody else is going to struggle to compete with him.”