Declarations of the “McIlroy Era” began after he breezed to a British Open victory three weeks ago to capture his third leg of the career slam. The changing-of-the-guard theme got an even larger boost of momentum on the eve of the season’s final major championship.
McIlroy, 25, backed up his wire-to-wire performance at Hoylake with a comeback victory over Sergio Garcia at the WGC-Bridgestone event at Firestone. The consecutive wins vaulted McIlroy back to the No. 1 ranking in the world leading into this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla.
“I’m not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I’m just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute, and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible,” McIlroy said Tuesday during a news conference.
Meanwhile, Woods withdrew during Sunday’s final round in Akron, Ohio, with yet another back injury that is proving epidemic in his diminishing quest to establish himself in the official record books as the greatest golfer of all time.
Woods is 38 with a body seemingly going on 60. It’s not a reach to draw the conclusion that he will never again be the same player he once was – or even close to it with another injury seemingly looming with every awkward lie.
Woods hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to even attempt to tee it up this week at Valhalla, where he won a memorable duel with Bob May in 2000 to capture the third leg of his Tiger Slam. Considering the way he was chopping the ball around Firestone on Sunday before walking off the course after nine holes, why should he even bother? He’s shown no sign that his game is good enough to beat McIlroy and Co. this week or qualify for the PGA Tour’s playoffs or be worthy of captain’s pick consideration for the Ryder Cup.
The best thing for Woods and golf might be to shut it down and try to get healthy and ready before next year’s Masters Tournament in April.
Sunday’s scene at Firestone was eerily similar to March when he pulled out of the Honda Classic halfway through the final round. Woods played the next week at Doral, but then ended up undergoing back surgery that kept him sidelined until June.
Whether he came back too soon and reinjured himself or suffered some new ailment isn’t yet known. One way or another, this might be the new normal for him and he’ll either have to suck it up and play through pain the way Fred Couples did, or be prepared to be a part-time golfer in between the bad days.
The void Woods leaves has been filled by McIlroy.
He’s certainly on a Tiger-like roll, with three significant wins since the end of May when he rallied to claim the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth.
He’s the first player since Woods in 2006 to follow a major championship win with a victory. If he wins a third consecutive PGA Tour start this week at Valhalla, he’d be the first to do so since Woods won five in a row bridging the 2007-08 seasons.
“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,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be – which is near the top of the world rankings and competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.”
It’s perhaps time to accept that golf has indeed entered a new era. Woods is playing older than the date on his driver’s license and Phil Mickelson is dealing with the inevitabilities of aging as well. There are plenty of worthy characters in their prime such as Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Garcia and a new order of 20-somethings led by McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and aspiring major artists Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth. If he gets his act together and gets out of the doghouse, Dustin Johnson could still figure prominently in this new era.
Tiger might not be done winning tournaments or even majors. But he’s not THE person to beat anymore. That role firmly belongs to McIlroy now, even if he isn’t buying into it.
“People can say what they want to say, that’s fine,” McIlroy said. “But I can’t read too much into it. … Because if you read everything that was being written, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.”
Perhaps golf isn’t ready to concede him that yet, but he’s getting closer than anyone since Woods to that pedestal. And when the Masters rolls around next spring, McIlroy – not Woods – will be THE story as he tries to complete his career slam quest.