Rory McIlroy isn't yet 23 years old and already he has been a prodigy, a choker at the Masters, a runaway winner at the U.S. Open, a superstar, the No. 1 player in the world and, if you listen to some people, a disappointment. It is supposed to take a lifetime to be so many things. Well, everything moves fast in today's world.
Through the years, professional golf hasn't really been a game for very young men. Yes, every now and again someone special comes along — Jack Nicklaus won his first major championship at 22, Gary Player won his at 23 — but most golfers need a few years to mature, to understand the game, to face the fears and anxieties that quicken the swing or cause putts to lip out when you most need them to drop.
Tom Watson won his first major at 25, then realized that his swing couldn't hold up under pressure, so he completely revamped it. Phil Mickelson's first major came at age 33 after many crushing disappointments. Vijay Singh's came at 35. Arnold Palmer was 28 when he broke through at the 1958 Masters. He had gone to college, served in the Coast Guard, and gone back to college before he became the golfer who could charge for victory in the big moments. Ben Hogan was 34 when he first won a major; he had spent years as a club pro in Hershey, Pa., where he would practice nonstop. When asked the secret to his eerie consistency, Hogan used to say: "The secret is in the dirt." He spent many years hitting balls out of the dirt before he became Ben Hogan.
Nick Faldo was 30, Sam Snead was 30, Lee Trevino was 28. Everyone understood that success demanded years of struggle and disappointment first.
Then Tiger Woods came along. The thing about Woods was not that he was so good so young (there had been other great young golfers). No, it was that he seemed to have conquered golf without facing any of those struggles or disappointments. He won three straight U.S. Amateurs. He was 21 years old when he won the Masters by 12 shots. He won four times that year. He was No. 1 in the world.
With that, Woods forever changed how young golfers are viewed. By any other measure, McIlroy has had an astonishing start to his career. He won his first PGA Tour event by shooting 62 on Sunday. He shot a 63 in the first round of the 2010 Open at St. Andrews. He led the Masters on Sunday before collapsing. He won the U.S. Open with the lowest aggregate score in tournament history. He has led all four majors at one point or another. He reached No. 1 in the world this spring.
What else could you want from a 22-year-old golfer?
Still, it's not Tiger, is it? And because of this you actually hear people ask: Does McIlroy have what it takes? Why hasn't he won more? This is the unreasonable demand placed on a brilliant young golfer after Woods showed what's possible.
McIlroy admits to being affected by the demands. He idolized Woods growing up, and he says that one reason for his Masters collapse was that he was trying to be too much like Woods. "He gives out this aura where everything is just so focused — you know, it's like, 'I'm going to rip your head off,' on the first tee," McIlroy told reporters recently. "I felt like that's the way I needed to win a major, but that isn't how I play my best golf."
That's such a smart and mature realization. Rory McIlroy isn't Tiger Woods. That isn't a bad thing.