KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The next major is eight months away. The next showdown is nine days away.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are assured of being paired together next week at The Barclays for the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs. And while these playoff events are more about making money than making history, this could become meaningful down the road.
Woods has never faced a rival with this kind of potential.
He has never won at least three times in a year without being looked upon as the undisputed best player in golf.
For the first time in his quest to break Jack Nicklaus’ record in the majors, the biggest challenge for Woods is no longer overcoming a failed marriage, four knee surgeries, a tender Achilles tendon or even the fact that he’s simply getting older.
It’s another player.
McIlroy and Woods have played in the same tournament 12 times this year. McIlroy has finished ahead of Woods seven times, including wins at the Honda Classic and the PGA Championship. They both tied for 40th at the Masters Tournament. McIlroy has seven top 5s in those events, along with three missed cuts.
This is not about where they were at a similar stage in their careers. Woods is incomparable in that regard. McIlroy has won twice in his first 16 majors as a pro. Woods won five majors in that span, including the career Grand Slam at age 24.
It’s about where they are now. So dominant was McIlroy at Kiawah Island, where he had rounds of 67-66 on the weekend to win the PGA Championship by eight shots, that it’s easy to get caught up in all things Rory. He is only 23, younger by some four months than when Woods won his second major, and he is doing things only thought possible by Woods. A record score at the U.S. Open last summer at Congressional. A record margin of victory at the PGA Championship on Sunday at Kiawah Island.
McIlroy has won two majors by a combined 16 shots.
To put that in perspective, only five majors have been won by eight shots or more in the past 35 years – three by Woods, two by McIlroy.
But let’s see how this plays out.
McIlroy could turn out to be like Johnny Miller, a comet on the golf horizon in the 1970s when he fired at flags and slaughtered the competition. Miller won two majors, with 63 on the last day at Oakmont and 66 in the final round at Royal Birkdale.
Perhaps McIlroy will be like Tom Watson, who was 10 years younger than Nicklaus.
Nicklaus already had the record for most majors when Watson won his first one, although Watson kept him from winning more. He beat Nicklaus twice in 1977, at the Masters and in the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry. He beat him again in 1981 at Augusta National and kept him from a record five U.S. Open titles in 1982 at Pebble Beach when Watson chipped in for birdie on the 17th hole.
McIlroy is 13 years younger than Woods. They have never gone head-to-head on Sunday in a major. Ultimately, that will be the measure.
Along the way, however, McIlroy is stashing away large bits of confidence that few others could when Woods was at his peak.
There is no reason for McIlroy to be intimidated. His name on the leaderboard means just as much. He is a favorite in any color shirt.
Nick Faldo once explained why Woods had such a huge advantage in the majors. Faldo thought after the 1997 Masters that Augusta National would be the only place Woods could win a major because the golf course suited him and because it was the only major where the media was kept outside the ropes. Only later did he realize that Woods was the only one who could handle the commotion inside the ropes in the final round.
“Other guys will step into that arena one week and go back out,” Faldo said in a 2007 interview. “He’s there all the time. And good luck coming into his world.”
McIlroy now has been atop the leaderboard 10 out of the past 40 rounds in the majors.
He has more experience than most his age, good and bad. What he took away from blowing a four-shot lead in the 2011 Masters was to set a target score. He set his target at 12-under par at Kiawah Island, played the final round without a bogey and did one better than that by finishing at 13-under 275.
“I feel these days when I give myself a chance to win one of these big tournaments, I can draw on the memories of Augusta, of Congressional, and now of today,” he said Sunday at Kiawah. “And know what I did out there, and know what to do again.”
It was never going to be easy for Woods to break Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. He said even in good times that Nicklaus achieved that mark over 25 seasons.
Woods lost two full years because of the strife he created in his personal life, and then more leg injuries, and then hiring his third swing coach.
In handicapping Woods’ chances of breaking the record, one popular analogy was that he would have to match Phil Mickelson’s career wins in the majors (four) just to tie the record. This never made much sense, though, because Woods and Mickelson never belonged in the same conversation when the topic was majors. Mickelson went 42 majors before he won his first. Woods had won 12 of them in the same span. They’re not the same player, then or now.
The main problem for Woods has been his head. His game is in great shape, and he knows it. He is pressing to win a major, to resume his pursuit of Nicklaus and shut up the critics. But this is the wrong game to try too hard. Maybe that’s one lesson to take away from Kiawah.
The bigger problem could turn out to be McIlroy.