Tiger’s time over, now it’s Rory’s glory
McIlroy looks to be best bet to win this week’s PGA Championship
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He still drives TV ratings and, yes, readership numbers like no one else, so it's understandable if the media remain fixated on Tiger Woods.
But it's not flattering, and it's not even very honest. What it is, is pandering.
Take a step back and look at what's going on in professional golf on the eve of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla, and it's pretty plain: Tiger Time, if we mean his era of domination, is so over.
The six-plus years since his last major championship win feels more like the nearly six major-less years leading up to Jack Nicklaus's memorable last hurrah at the 1986 Masters than merely some freakish mid-career slump.
That is, Woods could win another one; he's that talented, and lightning could strike again, as it did with the 46-year-old Golden Bear at Augusta.
But the game has moved on, with younger players every bit as gifted, and a lot healthier and more motivated, than Eldrick T. Woods, the crocked-up 38-year-old who withdrew from last week's WGC Bridgestone Invitational with pain — no doubt aggravated by a four-over-par score — in his surgically repaired back.
The evidence all points to the page having turned.
It is Rory McIlroy's era now, or if not, at least this has to be considered: after 15 of the previous 20 Grand Slam events were won by first-time major champions, all three this year have been taken by players with previous major titles: Bubba Watson at the Masters for the second time, Martin Kaymer adding the U.S. Open to his 2011 PGA Championship, and McIlroy, the 2012 PGA winner, capturing last month's Open Championship at Hoylake.
"I think you're just seeing the cycle of this decade's great players starting to write their part of golf history," said Australia's 2013 Masters winner, Adam Scott. "All three of those guys have won all their majors in this decade."
McIlroy, whose win last week, on the heels of his Open victory, lifted him once more to No. 1 in the world golf ranking, hasn't hidden his ambition to be among the new faces of golf.
"Look, I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game. I felt like I had the ability to do that," he said here Tuesday.
But now that the Rory Era may be upon us, he wants to plug his ears and cover his eyes and concentrate on what got him here.
"I'm not necessarily sure you can call it an era or the start of an era, but I'm just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute," he said. "People can say what they want to say, that's fine, but if I read everything that was being written, I'd turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I'd already won the tournament."
McIlroy looks like the surest bet to win this week, not because he has a win and three other top-10s in five previous PGA Championship starts — none of them were on this course, which last was on the world stage at the 2008 Ryder Cup and, before that, when Woods beat unheralded Bob May in a three-hole playoff to win the 2000 PGA.
But McIlroy is favoured because he is playing spectacular golf: long and straight off the tee, spot-on with his wedges, and making a lot of putts.
Mental fatigue, mind you, eventually gets the best of them.
It didn't used to get Tiger, but that's when he was longer than most and wasn't missing it both left and right off the tee.
"I think everyone knows how busy the golf season gets in these months," McIlroy said. "You know, starting off with, say, the Open Championship or even the week before that, a lot of guys play the Scottish, and going straight into a World Golf Championships at Firestone into the PGA; and then you have all the FedEx playoffs coming up and the Ryder Cup. It's a big stretch of golf.
"I think emotionally and mentally, it's more fatiguing after you win tournaments than it is physically."
"I gave myself yesterday off," he said.
He's 25. A day will do it.
"But you know, having all these tournaments sort of go back to back, it gives you less time to think about it. You just get straight back into it and you try to prepare the best you can and go out. I'll just try and play golf similar to what I've played the last few weeks."
Mostly, McIlroy looks right at home now among the elite at crunch time in majors.
"It took me a couple of goes, it really did, to get comfortable with the position of being in the mix in a major in the back nine on Sunday," he said. "I think it's a very important part of trying to close out tournaments, having those experiences to fall back on."
He's right, no doubt: it is way too early to anoint The Next One when The Last One hasn't even left the building yet. But Rory McIlroy is all grown up now, bigger and stronger, longer and steadier.
He, or someone like him — someone from Asia, perhaps, where golf is exploding — will take the game from here.
As for Tiger Woods, he may play the PGA this week, he may not. Either way, he is starting to sound like every rationalizing pro who ever shot a bad score. "If I'd only putted like normal" and "I feel like I'm really close" … when the evidence is so clearly otherwise.
In the heat of majors, his erratic driving puts too much pressure on the rest of his game, and he no longer makes every 10-footer he looks at.
Famously stubborn, all his bridges to the people who might help him, to former instructors Butch Harmon and Hank Haney, for instance, under whose guidance he was never better, have been burned.
And his body is letting him down, time and again, so he keeps missing valuable mileage in pressure situations.
It all points to the end of an era. His era. It was awfully good, historically good, while it lasted.
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