Halfway through the U.S. Open, I started hearing rumblings and I don’t like hearing rumblings. So I’ll start and stop the conversation right now.
Rory McIlroy is not Tiger Woods.
What it really means is McIlroy doesn’t have a legitimate chance to surpass Woods’ accomplishments.
In modern sports, when we expect someone to be the next Michael Jordan or the next Wayne Gretsky, what we really mean is we expect them to be better. Not perfect, but better. If they do the same, we will find faults. We glorify our heroes, as we should. Any failures not committed by the prototype will be held against the new athlete who commits them. It’s the same way Peyton Manning and Tom Brady won’t ever be Joe Montana. Joe Cool never lost when he had a chance to win the Super Bowl. Same with Jordan, six Finals, six titles, six Finals MVP trophies. Kobe Bryant can win seven championships, but he’ll have lost two and not be the MVP of at least three of the Finals. But those are team games where championships sometimes go to the better team and not the best player.
In golf (boxing and tennis to a certain extent), the athlete is literally out there playing against everyone over the span of four days. You don’t have to win every tournament, but you have to win more than anyone else over your career. It comes down to wins and majors, but it also comes down to how much you dominate. And the problem for McIlroy is the competition will only get tougher because players will be better in the coming years. Will he ever obliterate a major’s field by 15 strokes? Probably not. Will he ever hold all four majors at the same time? I hope he does, but I don’t expect it to happen. But he does have youth on his side.
Comparing the two makes it clear McIlroy can never be Woods.
This is McIlroy’s fourth year as a pro. By the end of Woods’ fourth year, he already had the career grand slam (all four majors) along with the Triple Crown of Golf (U.S., British and Canadian Opens in one season). McIlroy can only win the Triple Crown.
Sure, McIlroy turned pro at a younger age and spent more time on the European Tour, so maybe maturity (physical and mental) and lack of opportunities are factors, but those are career choices.
Regardless, let’s take a look at their careers relative to age.
Woods won The Masters the first time he played it as a pro and was ranked #1 in the world within a year of becoming a professional. He was 21. At 21, McIlroy went into the final round of the 2011 Masters with a 4 stroke lead and not only couldn’t he close, he goes and shoots 80. How long did it take before Tiger lost a major while going into the final round with at least a share of the lead? Twelve years and 15 tournaments.
McIlroy turned 22 on May 4 and the U.S. Open is his third professional title and first major. By that age, Woods already had six professional wins (including a major) and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year. That’s not to say McIlroy can’t catch fire and run over the field the rest of the year. (I hope he does. Golf is more fun when someone is playing lights out.)
Most of all McIlroy’s first name is Rory and not Eldrick and he’s definitely not Cablinasian. (I kid. I kid. Side note: Ever notice how black is least represented in that word? I kid, again.) How many guys do you know named Rory? Culkin (the younger and minor one who somehow became the major one, kind of like how Marc Gasol is in the process of doing to Pau) and Cochrane (Check ya later!).
At least McIlroy is starting 22 better than Woods, who only won one PGA title (3 total, I’m sure most golfers will trade 3 titles for one major) during that year of his life. And McIlroy takes down two of Tiger’s U.S. Open records, -16 and 268 strokes.
McIlroy’s best shot is to win the Vardon Trophy and Byron Nelson Award more than Woods or break the adjusted scoring average for a year, 67.79. Tiger has done it twice. No one else has cracked 68. It might become golf’s version of batting .400.
I don’t expect to see the next Tiger Woods until about 3-5 years from now. It’ll be some young kid whose first memories consist of watching Woods walking in his Sunday red from 1999-2001 and then nagging his father to take him out to the golf course and driving range.