As Tiger Woods struggles with his swing, Rory McIlroy takes over the spotlight

As Tiger Woods struggles with his swing, Rory McIlroy takes over the spotlight

Rory McIlroy is back at the Players after skipping it last season.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — This time last year, Rory McIlroy was still one month away from his first major victory at the U.S. Open when he snubbed the Players Championship, the so-called fifth major. Also M.I.A. at Sawgrass in 2011 was Lee Westwood. The two of them exchanged “twitter banter” about heading out to play social golf while the rest of the world’s finest players were toiling in the Florida heat.

The blazers at PGA Tour headquarters failed to see the funny side of their very public disdain for the Tour’s marquee championship.

McIlroy has done much growing up in 12 months. He has become more aware of the responsibilities that come with his status as the world’s No. 1 golfer, which include being a spokesman for the sport and a flag carrier for his generation. His tweets are less frivolous, and he admitted on Tuesday that he made a mistake by not playing here last year.

“Looking back on it, it wasn’t one of my greatest moments.” McIlroy said with a sheepish grin. “I’m glad to be back.”

When 144 players tee off on Thursday, chasing a first prize of $1.71 million, many eyes will fall on Tiger Woods as yet another chapter of his never-ending circus unfolds. Is he back? (See victory at Bay Hill in March.) Or is he yesterday’s man? (See failure at the Masters and a missed cut last week in North Carolina.)

But as the players assembled here Tuesday, there was no doubt the buzz on the practice range was not so much about the 36-year-old former No. 1 player but rather the 23-year-old current No. 1 and his newly-crowned, flamboyant rival, 23-year-old Rickie Fowler. Last Sunday, Fowler finally delivered on his potential and hype to beat McIlroy in a playoff at Quail Hollow. You can hardly miss Fowler, who’s often dressed like an escaped convict and is attempting to make orange the new Sunday red.

The world seemingly waited an age and still failed to find a genuine competitor for Tiger. Now it doesn’t need one. Many hope McIlroy and Fowler will forge a new-age rivalry.

“Tiger not paying his best has spread the spotlight and helps Rickie and I to stand out a little bit more,” McIlroy said. “It’s been a good thing for us.”

And it looks like it will be a friendly rivalry, too. They struck up a friendship in their amateur days. “I developed a really good relationship with him at the Walker Cup in 2007,” McIlroy said. “I felt like he was the best player on that (U.S.) team and also the nicest guy.”

The landscape has changed since Tiger was bullying his way to 14 major titles, the last of which came at the U.S. Open in 2008. McIlroy looked back on that era like he was flicking through the pages of history. Time will tell if Woods is history, or if there is to be one fabulous final chapter.

“As a fan growing up, I loved that Tiger was dominant,” McIlroy said. “And I loved that Phil (Mickelson) would challenge him for a while and then Ernie (Els) and then Vijay (Singh) and David (Duval). I liked that story line. It would be nice if a few people separated themselves from the rest. Hopefully I will be in that group. If I was a golf fan, I’d like to see a rivalry.”

There was a time when a 15-year-old McIlroy would shudder at the very mention of Woods, his boyhood hero. “Yeah, I think the first time I met Tiger I was a little star-struck,” McIlroy said. “I watched him on television winning majors by 15 and 12 shots and doing things no one else could do. It’s funny, I was more nervous meeting Tiger than I was meeting Barack Obama.”

But Tiger’s Superman aura flew out of the window in 2009. “I still expect Tiger to come back and do some great things,” McIlroy said. “He’s won this year, so he’s definitely on the right track.”

That was his nod to the past, with respect duly given to his one-time idol. But then came his nod to the future.

“But I think it was great for golf that Rickie won,” McIlroy said. “It’s great to have characters like that playing well, and he engages with the fans really well. He’s a really popular guy out here.”

Woods can’t escape his past as he searches for a future; for McIlroy and Fowler, the future is now.