PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — One day after his 21st birthday, Rory McIlroy had a smile on his face as he slowly made his way up the long, roped-off path leading from the 16th green to the 17th tee during a practice round for the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Wednesday.
The game's newest boy wonder was signing whatever was thrust over the rope at him, accepting birthday congratulations from fans. Finally he arrived on the tee, well after playing partners Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. They were joined by Padraig Harrington, who'd spent the day putting and chipping but wanted to give his caddie Ronan Flood a chance to try to hit the island green, as is the Wednesday custom.
Poulter and McDowell each hit the green, leaving medium-length birdie putts. McIlroy stepped up and, despite most players hitting 9-iron to clear the water, swung a pitching wedge with his inimitable fluidity. His ball shot toward the pin and checked up four feet left of perfect; the crowd gave a lusty cheer.
"There lives the legend," Harrington said later.
These are heady times for golf's newest star. McIlroy is days removed from his first win on the PGA Tour, at the Quail Hollow Championship, where he made the cut on the number and then shot an unprecedented 66-62 on the weekend to win by four.
His 21st birthday party Tuesday night featured a large group of fellow Tour pros, many of whom have fallen for "Rors" just as fans and media have. It must have been some party, because one of the first questions McIlroy was asked in his Wednesday press conference was whether he still had both eyebrows. (He did.)
"J.P. (Fitzgerald), my caddie, organized it," McIlroy said. "It was in Lulu's, just out the back gate here. There were probably 40, 50 people, had a few drinks and had a bit of a dinner."
And dessert: chocolate ice-cream cake.
McIlroy is big on Tiger trivia, able to recount the smallest career details of the world No. 1, so he must realize he's found the sweet spot in a way that Woods's did nearly 14 years ago.
Both got their first Tour victories just before their 21st birthdays, after an extraordinary amount of preamble.
Both started playing the game so early that they were shown on television as toddlers, Woods on the Mike Douglas show at 2 and McIlroy on UTV (Ulster television) at 3. One initially made his fame in Southern California, the other in Northern Ireland, but both were so incandescent as to be visible from far, far away.
At 12, McIlroy, the pride of Holywood, near Belfast, was a 5 handicap. At 14, he was a plus-1, and told BBC personality and Niche Media Director Shane O'Donoghue, "I'm sure all the big fellas are a bit scared of me because I am so young."
By 17 he was a plus-5, and told Paul Forsyth of the Sunday Times, "At every pro event I've played in, there have been agents coming up to me saying, 'How are you Rory, anything I can do for you Rory?' They can't talk to me formally, but they ring my dad."
And now, at 21, McIlroy has arrived. How much better can he get? That was the question we asked about Woods after he won his first event, the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. On Tour there are wins, and there are wins that seem to signal something bigger.
"Everybody has been talking about Rory for a number of years, and there's been a lot of pressure on his shoulders," said Ian Poulter. "He's finally won a tournament over here, which people would have expected a little bit sooner because he's that good."
There's a nice symmetry in this week's pairings in that McIlroy and Woods each tee off at 1:28 p.m. Thursday, Tiger off the first tee with Hunter Mahan and Ian Poulter, Rory off the 10th with K.J. Choi and Bill Haas. There will be no question in either group as to the identity of the star attraction.
Granted, they are trending as differently as two men can.
Woods is trying to pull out of a long, painful nosedive before he augers into the ground and does himself any permanent damage. McIlroy is on a ride that only goes up, and enjoying every minute.
Neither of them sound satisfied.
"I don't like missing cuts," Woods said earlier this week.
"I feel I've been a pro two and a half years, I've won two tournaments," McIlroy said. (His first W, at the Dubai Desert Classic, came on the European Tour last year.) "It's about time to start winning a bit more, and hopefully I can start doing that."
For both players, it starts this week in north Florida.