This weekend felt a lot like the second weekend in April back in 1997.
A young up and coming golfer in his early 20’s with all the talent in the world winning his first major in record setting fashion. Fourteen years ago it was a 21-year-old Tiger Woods dominating the Masters with a tournament record score of 18 under par.
The golfer and the major were different this weekend but the performance was the same. Rory McILroy, at the ripe age of 22, blew away the US Open field with a score of -16. It is the lowest score in the 111-year history of the US Open by four strokes.
The previous record holder? You guessed it, Tiger Woods with a -12 back in 2000.
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With Woods injured and aging the golf world is looking for the next golfer that can dominate the sport and provide healthy TV ratings. McILroy may be it. He is not as talented as Tiger was in his prime but he’s pretty darn close. He has also proved to be resilient in his youth with his US Open victory yesterday coming less than two months after he choked away a four stroke lead in the final round of the Masters. To be fair to Woods, he has never had to show this type of resiliency because he has never blown a lead of that size during the final round of a major. Still, with the many ups and downs that can occur during a golf career (just ask Tiger!), it’s good to know that the kid from Northern Ireland has some moxy.
Speaking of McILroy’s nationality, this could be looked at by some as a barrier in his quest to become the next Tiger. Most if not all of the accomplished, popular golfers in PGA history have been American. Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer were all US born and bred. Woods, of course, resides in the good old US of A as well. McILroy, however, is a good bet to break this nationalistic trend. With sports more global than ever we regularly watch and cheer for athletes from other countries. Dirk Nowitzki was America’s darling for the better part of two weeks as he succeeded in taking down the hated Miami Heat. Major League Baseball is filled with players from Mexico, South America and the Domenican Republic. Why can’t Rory McILroy set the golf world on fire even if he is Irish. Also, Americans love Ireland. Many Americans have Irish blood running through their veins and who doesn’t look forward to hitting their local pub on St. Patrick’s Day every March 17th.
If McILroy is able to overcome the international barrier, and I suspect he will, he possesses one trait that Tiger never had and probably never will; he’s likable. Golf fans always watched Tiger because they knew they were witnesses to greatness. They weren’t necessarily cheering for him though. Tiger rarely smiles on the golf course and only acknowledges the crowd after a particularly good or important shot. He is also closed off and unemotional during interviews. McIlroy is the exact opposite. He is frequently showing his pearly whites and almost always acknowledges the crowd’s cheers after a good shot or successful putt. He also showed vulnerability following his Masters collapse admitting that he didn’t handle the pressure well during the final round and that he may very well not be ready to win a major. Would Tiger ever admit vulnerability? Even when he was at his most vulnerable following the numerous extramarital affairs that were exposed in late 2009 you still didn’t feel any remorse or emotion at all from Woods. If McILroy can even come close to achieving what Tiger accomplished from 1997-2009, golf fans in the US and around the world will gladly go along for the ride.
McILroy still has some work to do before he can truly be considered the next Tiger. He needs to consistently appear near the top of the leaderboard on the final Sunday of future majors and he has to win his fair share of other PGA tournaments as well. Winning one or two more majors by the time he turns 23 next May wouldn’t hurt either. For now, we can legitimately hope that we are on the verge of watching another great golfer tear through the PGA at the height of his powers. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if McILroy does fulfill his potential but has to contend with a suddenly resurgent Tiger Woods, who puts injury, age and controversy aside to regain some of his former greatness. I think the likable McILroy might have the golf fans support in that battle.
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