Tailing Tiger

Tailing Tiger

McIlroy grabbed the spotlight with a 68 on Thursday, the day's only bogey-free round.
Fred Vuich/SI

The crowd was thick around the practice green at Carnoustie last Saturday morning, which should’ve been a tipoff that something was up. Yet Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, a slight 18-year-old whose freckled, cherubic cheeks make him look more like 14, eased past a pair of security guards and onto the practice area with the confidence of a veteran pro, dropped a couple of balls, then casually began stroking putts
toward a cup near the one being used by Tiger Woods.

There was no exchange of pleasantries, eye contact or backward glances by Woods, who was hard at work in his office and apparently didn’t notice the pride of Holywood, a town of about 12,000 near Belfast. That made Tiger about the only person at the British Open to miss McIlroy, who would finish 42nd (with
a five-over 289) to win the silver medal as low amateur, an award claimed by Woods in 1996. McIlroy stole the show in the opening round when he shot a three-under 68, a stroke lower than Tiger, and emerged as the only player in the field without a bogey on his card.

If nothing else, the moment on the practice green was symbolic. McIlroy is at the leading edge of a generation of golfers who, since childhood, have been inspired by and idolize Tiger Woods. Nicklaus, Watson, Norman — they’re simply names in a history book to this new wave of players. To them, there has been only one dominating force in the game, and that is Tiger. Soon, Woods can look forward to being challenged by the very youngsters he brought to the game. McIlroy
was seven when Woods won his third straight U.S. Amateur. “After that it was Tiger, Tiger, Tiger,” he says. “Tiger has been the one big influence in my golfing life.”

Though only 5′ 9″, McIlroy carries a big stick. There’s a bounce in his step, almost a swagger, and don’t blink or you’ll miss his next shot. That, plus his curly brown hair and look-at-me taste in clothes, brings to mind a young Lanny Wadkins. “I love the way he makes everything look so easy,” says three-time Open
champ Nick Faldo, one of McIlroy’s mentors. “He tees it up, sees the shot and just goes.”

The most notable shot of McIlroy’s opening round was a 230-yard two-iron through the wind to the 18th green. He missed the birdie putt but still savored the approach, saying, “If I had only one memory from the day, that would be it.” Unless it was the memory of the standing ovation that followed when he walked to the scorer’s tent. “It was as if a chill ran down the back of my spine,” admitted McIlroy, who had never heard anything like it. “It was fantastic.”

The Open has a knack for introducing great young international players to the world. Ernie Els (1992) and Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia (’98) first made a mark
at this tournament. Now it’s McIlroy, a two-time winner of the Irish Amateur and the reigning European Amateur champion. Veteran PGA Tour pro Arron Oberholser was paired with McIlroy in the third round and saw him rally from a sloppy front side to salvage a 73. “Rory is going to be on plenty of Ryder Cup teams,” the 32-year-old Oberholser says. “He’s that good. I’ve played with other great young players Ryan Moore, Tiger when he was in college, Matt Kuchar, Joel Kribel. Rory
is ready to turn pro right now. He doesn’t have any weak spots. He’s miles and miles ahead of where I was at 18.”

A telling shot in that round came at the par-3 8th hole, where McIlroy missed the green to the right and was on a steep downslope. “He grabbed a lofted club, which shocked me,” Oberholser said. “I would’ve bumped something into the hill, but Rory slipped under it and lofted it onto the green and rolled it up there to about a foot. I went, Whoa, that’s not an amateur shot; that’s a best-player-in-the-world shot. I was really impressed.”

McIlroy plans to turn pro in September, after playing in the Walker Cup, the amateur version of the Ryder Cup. Then he’ll try to land a few sponsors’ exemptions
into events in Europe before trying to earn a European tour card at qualifying school. Two years ago McIlroy nearly accepted a scholarship to East Tennessee State, mostly so he could play during the winter. “I wasn’t really that keen on the school part,” he says, “so I decided to stay home.”

He carries a plus-six (six under par) handicap at his home course, Holywood Golf Club, a par-69 of 6,100 yards that isn’t much of a test for him anymore. The club doesn’t have a practice range, so to stay sharp he plays three balls during rounds there. His parents bought a synthetic practice green so he can work on his short game at home.

On Saturday the crowd at the halffull grandstand at 18 — many of the fans were out on the course with Tiger — gave McIlroy a nice round of applause as he walked off the green, but as he passed the nearby Carnoustie Links Hotel, the fans who filled balconies and hung from open windows were more raucous, putting down their drinks to clap and cheer. “Well done, Rory!” came from a dozen windows.

McIlroy looked up, smiled and waved to acknowledge their calls. Well done, yes. But there’s more to come.