BETHESDA, Md. – By the time dusk settled over Congressional Country Club on Sunday evening it was clear that golf had found its challenge to Tiger Woods, even if it comes in the form of a man barely 22 years old with freckles on his face and the bushy hair of a teenager. For all the imposters and has-beens and never-really-coulds who were supposed to break the iron rule of the game’s most dominant player over the last 14 years, who would have imagined Rory McIlory?
Stalking the greens he fades into the scenery, a kid making a joke of grown men, he hardly seems tall enough to crush the drives he hits so precisely. And yet with one brilliant week here on the very course that hosts Tiger’s tournament, he leaped into that hazy ether owned only by Woods. McIlroy might only have won three professional tournaments in his brief career, but his 16-under par total in this U.S. Open was one of the most dominating performances in a major ever, obliterating Tiger’s previous Open record of 12 under set at the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach.
So here is the new face golf was desperate to find, the one whose life changed forever this weekend, the one that will now be pictured as the favorite at the next several major tournaments regardless of whether Woods returns from his injuries.
But Rory McIlroy is not Tiger Woods. He does not strut through golf tournaments with an icy indifference, breaking opponents just by the act of not even looking their way. He isn’t the kind to brush past a group of fans without at least a nod or the tiniest of waves.
On Saturday, after McIlroy nearly made the outcome of this tournament moot by shooting a 68, he walked into the clubhouse, spotted a small boy standing in the hallway and tossed him his glove. The boy beamed. The boy’s mother clapped. And Rory replied with a slight smile as he walked toward the locker room.
It’s the kind of thing Tiger would have never done lest he seem compassionate. Yet it is the frigid distance that helped Tiger win 14 major titles and become the most-feared man on the tour. He crushed his adversaries before he ever played them.
McIlroy is not a golf robot. Even as he scorched his way through Congressional doubts lingered about his will. He could have been the true challenge to Tiger two months ago in the green forest of Augusta, but his last-day lead at the Masters imploded somewhere off the side of the 10th fairway cementing a label as yet another talented young player too fragile to survive the pressure of a major tournament.
You do not go from being the player who blew the Masters and squandered a first-day lead at last summer’s British Open to being the most intimidating presence on the tour in a matter of weeks. You are not yet the game’s best player if thousands are lining the ropes on Sunday, craning their necks half expecting you to crumble.
Just Saturday evening Lee Westwood, who shares a business manager with McIlroy, wondered aloud if McIlory would hold what was then an eight-stroke lead. “You don’t know how he’s going to deal with the big lead,” Westwood said. “He had a big lead in a major and didn’t deal with it well before. There’s pressure on him with regards to that. We’ll see.”
Nobody said “we’ll see” when Tiger led by eight strokes on the next to last day of a major.
Maybe someday McIlroy gets a Tiger-like desire. Maybe winning this tournament and all the fame that comes with it will harden him, wiping the youthful smirk that dances on his lips and steeling him against the world the way Woods always did. Perhaps, as everyone seems to predict, he will win lots and lots of majors and approach the 14 major titles won by Tiger. But it’s hard to believe a kid who talks freely about his failings and admits that the thing he needed to add most to his game was arrogance could be Tiger.
Instead he will likely become something else, something more loveable: a really good player who knows how to treat people well, who will smile and sign autographs and play the game with joy and not as if he was on a corporate mission.
Sunday he took the victor’s walk down the 18th fairway, basking in the roar that reverberated through the trees, over the pond and against the giant clubhouse standing regal atop a hill. There are few strolls like this in sports and everybody expects there will be many more. But still it lay in contrast to the previous evening, when he leaned over to knock his final putt into the hole and from far across the water there came a voice piercing the silence.
“Just like the Masters!”
Nobody would have dared scream such a thing at Woods in the same situation.
Which is why Rory McIlroy is a really, really good golfer.
But he is not Tiger Woods. At least not yet.