Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy is only story in golf as Masters approaches

March 30, 2012

By sunset on Easter, when Jonathan Byrd is being ushered into the clubhouse for the winner’s dinner in a borrowed club coat, all this Tiger-Rory talk might seem a little rash. But the fact is, this moment, before Augusta draws her curtain, belongs to them.

Right now, Woods remains by far the dominant figure in the game. Bay Hill proved that all over again, and so does the response to the Hank Haney book and everything else. If Tiger should win his fifth Masters next week? Welcome to Tigermania, Part II: Balding and Beautiful. But should ­McIlroy win his first? Well, golf will have its first two-name conversation since the last days of the cardigan. Jack and Arnold, find Mr. Player and get yourselves down to the 1st tee, would you please? A weirdly warm March is over. This 76th Masters needs to begin.

Don’t even try to compare them, Rory with his swing from God, Tiger’s swing (these days) assembled on the practice tee. (After a Friday 65 at Bay Hill, Woods lukewarmed his ball striking to reporters and went to the range.) But Tiger and Rory share two important things: They are both only children, and they were both golfing prodigies. Tiger was 21 when he won his first major, the 1997 Masters, by 12 shots. Rory was 22 when he won his first and only, last year’s U.S. Open, by eight. Tiger, at 36, has 14 major titles. Augusta will be the 14th major in which Rory has played. He’s what Tiger once was: a kid with a future. Is Rory in the same class as Woods? Set your time machine to 2026.

Woods became Woods by way of an überfocus that the game hadn’t seen since Ben Hogan. Rory’s becoming Rory on the back of a flowing, well-oiled swing that brings to mind a racehorse on a grassy flat: hooves in the turf, sod flying, breathless power. The fact is, focus has a longer shelf life than a glorious swing, no matter what the life and times of Fred Couples might suggest.

Fred won at Augusta 20 years ago with Joe LaCava on his bag, and now the big guy is caddying for Tiger, who calls him Joey. Wherever he is, whomever he’s with, Tiger creates a boys’ club.

It fits, because his father was Army, and camouflage pervades Tiger’s worldview. Haney—best-selling author slash TV personality slash swing guru—knows that, of course, and he got Tiger all wound up by leaking a couple of Navy SEAL tidbits from his new book. Woods wants nothing to do with the tome by his ex-coach and former friend. But while evading a reporter’s question at the Honda Classic about his interest in the SEALs, Woods couldn’t help himself. He used the word book four times in a single terse response. From the master of deflection, it was so strange. It’s obvious that Woods is done with Haney for breaking rank, sharing secrets, talking about their relationship. (Blech!) Tiger has moved on. At Bay Hill, Woods praised the swing work he’s doing with the technocrat Sean Foley.

Mark Steinberg, Tiger’s agent, called the book’s eve-of-Augusta release date “disruptive timing.” But The Big Miss—the book, not his formerly off-the-map driving—will probably help Woods at the Masters. After all, who plays better red-light, red-ass golf than Tiger Woods? Two years ago at Augusta, Billy Payne spoke about his disappointment in Woods. The club chairman offered the golfer a path to redemption. Woods’s public response to Payne was benign. (“I was disappointed in myself too.”) But Tiger was hot. Playing for the first time in five months and with his home life falling apart, Woods tied for fourth. Last year at Augusta, despite many misses, big and small, he did the same. Who would be surprised if his finish this year is better?

At the Honda, where McIlroy won by two over Woods, Tiger closed with a 62 on a hard course in a stiff wind and was the leader in the clubhouse with McIlroy still playing. Later Rory said, “To be honest, I was thinking, Could it not just have been anyone else?” How charming and candid and fun.

The next week, at Doral, where Woods WD’d mid-round with a strained Achilles tendon, ­McIlroy finished third. He signed, slapped himself across the thigh, stood in front of a microphone and said he hoped that Woods would be back soon, for Tiger’s sake and the game’s, too. How magnanimous.

Three days later McIlroy went to the White House for a state dinner. Did you see the snaps, with that polka-dotted pocket square in his Alexander Nash (whoever that is) tuxedo jacket and that Alfred E. Neuman grin on his face? McIlroy tweeted up the jacket and later the soiree: Unbelievable experience at the White House last night! Big thanks to @BarackObama for the invite! We’ll get that golf swing sorted soon! You can be sure Rory typed those 136 confident characters himself and that he meant each and every one of them. The kid’s living large and loving it.

Things were never that easy for Tiger, and now they’re only harder. Winning Tour events might change things in his public life, but it doesn’t have much influence on his private one. These days he’s a single parent first, and as a golfer he always has one eye on various body parts: his reconstructed left knee, that right Achilles prone to inflammation, his back during the Bay Hill pro-am.

Golf has had older 36-year-olds, though not many. Seve was pretty much done at 36. Hogan was 36 when a Greyhound bus nearly killed him, but he still won—and won big—after that when his body cooperated. Tiger will keep winning too, most likely at places that are loaded with good vibes for him, like Bay Hill and Doral and Firestone, tried-and-true Tour stops. If he’s going to get to 18 major titles—Big Jack’s final resting place—he will be particularly dependent on the courses where he has already won, where his cunning ways will give him an edge over ever-longer brazen youths like Rory. But how many major cracks will he get at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews and Torrey Pines and a few other happy hunting grounds over the next decade? Maybe a half dozen. His annual tour at Augusta National will make or break him, assuming his body holds up.

If you were on the 12th tee on Sunday at Doral when Tiger suddenly packed it in, you couldn’t doubt that he was in pain. His face was contorted, and he didn’t even discuss the possibility of playing on. But so many ordinary fans simply didn’t believe him. They think that Woods, as insiders said of Michael Jordan in his NBA heyday, believes there are special rules only for him. It’s a harsh view, and it may or may not be true. But the point is, people have become suspicious. The one thing everybody believes is his wins. Didn’t he look heroic, standing on the 18th green at Bay Hill on Sunday? Tour events are important, but what Woods needs more than anything is a 15th major. He talked about that Sunday night, when his win seemed to generate more fascination than euphoria among golf fans, and more relief than happiness for Woods. He’s been stuck on 14 for three years and 10 months.

This will be McIlroy’s fourth trip to Augusta. He finished 20th in his first major as a professional, the 2009 Masters. That year, on the 18th hole in the second round, he left a shot in a greenside bunker, and he kicked the sand. If you kick the sand out of anger, with your ball still in the trap, it’s considered testing the ground, and there’s a two-shot penalty for that. If you’re kicking the sand to smooth it out, you’re fine. Rules officials brought McIlroy, then 19, back to the course four hours after his round was over to review a video of the shot. He said he was simply smoothing the sand. The rules officials decided to believe him. Would Woods have been given the same benefit of the doubt?

McIlroy was just a kid then, and he still is, really, an Irish (Northern) lad. Your cousin’s kid at St. Cecilia’s is bigger than he is, and she’s in the eighth grade. Even with his newly sleek physique and his splashy girlfriend (tennis star Caroline Wozniacki), he’s just a boy with a big watch and the money to pay for it, his parents following him on the course but giving him his space too. (B.J. and Bo Wie, meet Gerry and Rosie McIlroy. They’re easy to find. Maybe bring Michelle. Let them buy you a beer, but pass on the smokes.) A night or two a week, sometimes far more, Rory hangs with his folks. When fans say hi, he says hi right back. In press sessions reporters ask questions, and Rory answers them. “It’s nice to be nice, and it doesn’t cost you a penny,” Gerry likes to say. He’s been a food-and-beverage man all his life. He knows how bread gets buttered.

How did these simple things get so complicated with Tiger? When he was 14, Tiger and his father were with the writer Jaime Diaz when Tiger asked, “Why do they have to know everything?” It was an insightful and telling question. Two decades later Diaz, who knows Woods better than most writers, started helping Haney with his book.

Jeff Silverman, in an incisive review of The Big Miss for GOLF.com, summarized Haney’s take on Tiger with this sentence: “He’s cheap, arrogant, reckless, narcissistic, selfish, immature, icy, defensive, entitled, walled-in, imperious and a sore loser.” Tiger most likely is all those things, but there’s more to him than that, just as there is surely more to Rory than his charming quotes, his beautiful play, his genial parents and his Alexander Nash duds.

Tiger may be cheap, but the Tiger Woods Foundation has improved thousands of lives. If you’ve watched Tiger closely this year, with Ernie Els at Bay Hill and Steve Stricker at Doral and Lee Westwood at Honda, you can see that his need to connect with other people—that is, other people who actually understand what he has accomplished in life and what he’s been through—is almost desperate. The hugs, the soul shakes, the knowing smiles. That doesn’t mean he’s not imperious. He is. You should have seen the icy glare he gave an Augusta National member who dared to tell him to stop practicing and get on the course because play was about to begin after a rain delay. Everybody loves a winner. You saw that all over again in Tiger’s win at Bay Hill. But it doesn’t cover up the fact that he IS a sore loser. If you need a reminder, just YouTube his Sunday night interviews from the 2011 Masters, the 2010 Masters, the 2009 PGA. We could go on.

Rory knows how to lose, and we love him for it. At last year’s Masters he had a four-shot lead going into the final round, then fired a back-nine 43 on Sunday and tumbled to 15th place. The goofy, over-the-top public response to his U.S. Open victory two months later was rooted in his post­round grace and honesty on that Sunday at Augusta when Tiger and 13 others raced past him. At Congressional, Rory himself had the presence to remind people that he had now won exactly one major. It was endearing. It never seems like an act with him.

With Woods, you never know, and it’s always useful to remember that he’s a skillful actor. (Remember the old Buick spots, in which he saw dead people? Or his impassive face in that weird 2010 Nike spot, Earl providing the voiceover from the hereafter?) Masters of subterfuge are always good actors.

Four days after Doral, Woods appeared on Good Morning America in New York City, and he was relaxed and loose and fun. Was he under the spell of the extraordinary Robin Roberts? Was he inspired by his desire to sell the game Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13? Whatever motivated him, it was a command performance. How many units did he move in those five minutes? A bunch. Tiger Woods, as Robin Roberts noted in another context, is “all about the numbers.” Nothing truer has ever been said of him. On the range at Doral, Woods wanted to know the loft on Jason Day’s driver. Day himself didn’t even know.

How will you feel if Tiger’s in the mix on Sunday at Augusta? Awed, for sure, just as we all felt watching him at Bay Hill. But will you pump when he pumps? The Southern fraternity brothers will be there for him, but what about the gals? The Tiger Woods action figures marked down to $3.98 in supermarket toy sections suggest diminished enthusiasm on the distaff side. And what will your rooting heart do if McIlroy is right there with him? Tiger plays for ­second-chancers, single fathers, true believers in the post-racial American dream. Tiger, when he was even younger than Rory is now, talked about being Cablinasian, but now he’s a different sort of melting pot. He’s Lance Armstrong and Michael Jordan, he’s Clinton and Romney. He used to be American Express, and if he wins at Augusta next week maybe he will be again.

Against all that, doesn’t rooting for Rory just seem so … easy?