Rory McIlroy’s dominant victory at the 2011 US Open at Congressional Country Club Maryland was just what golf needed.
After the 22 year-old Northern Irishman surrendered the 2011 Masters earlier this year, some had begun to doubt his potential for the future. He had been labeled a ‘choker’.
He now has a new moniker: ‘the next Tiger Woods’.
McIlroy was simply brilliant over the weekend. He became the fifth player in the US Open’s 111-year history to end each round under par. He set a new all-time scoring record of 268 in 72 holes, at what many consider to be the toughest major of them all, to finish the tournament 16 strokes under par.
But his commanding victory meant so much more than US $1,440,000.
Before the tournament began, the main focus was on the absence of Tiger Woods, who was sidelined from the Open to give his body and mind more time to recover. Therefore there was a major concern viewers wouldn’t tune in or pay any attention to the event.
Although Woods may no longer be ranked World Number 1, he is undoubtedly still the biggest draw-card for the sport and his presence alone attracts extra money and viewers.
But no one could have predicted the events that transpired over the next four days.
Not only did McIlroy officially become the next Woods, but he did it while the Tiger Woods still has some fight in him.
Woods’ amazing final round at the Masters earlier this year showed the world that maybe, just maybe, he still has what it takes.
‘I was trying to go out there and emulate him in some way,’ said McIlroy when speaking to ESPN, who grew up idolizing Woods his most dominant period.
He certainly did that. His commanding performance – which saw him double the score of second-place finisher Jason Day – was the kind of performance not seen since Pebble Beach in 2000.
McIlroy was ‘Tiger-esque’. He was faultless, self-assured and unchallenged across the four rounds, carrying himself with such swagger that it bordered upon arrogance.
It seemed there was no one on the course who could possibly stop McIlroy from storming to his maiden Major crown. Even if Woods was competing, he would not have been able to stand in the way of the Northern Irish phenom on recent form.
When McIlroy held the U.S. Open trophy aloft Sunday evening, he was exactly 22 years, 46 days old. That’s less than one year older than Woods was when he won his first major in 1997.
However, McIlroy will have to toil away under Woods’ burden, whether he is on the course or not. He has been dubbed the heir to golf’s throne, so his every move will be under immense scrutiny.
Perhaps no event will be bigger for McIlroy, than the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George’s, which tees off in a little under a month. He will carry a weight of expectation into the tournament, especially because he’ll be playing in his home territory
McIlroy has raw talent and after his first Major win, he is the real deal. Already the accolades have started to flow.
‘He’s the best player I’ve ever seen,’ said Graeme McDowell, the winner of the 2010 US Open. ‘I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger when he was in his real prime, and this guy is the best I’ve ever seen, simple as that.
‘He’s great for golf. He’s a breath of fresh air for the game and perhaps we’re ready for golf’s next superstar and maybe Rory is it.’
World Number One Luke Donald declared McIlroy possesses ‘the most talent I’ve ever seen from a golfer’ when speaking to reporters after the tournament.
But perhaps the biggest claim came from Irishmen Padraig Harrington.
‘If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man,’ he told reporters after the conclusion of the final round.
McIlroy may very well be the next superstar that will carry golf forward through the next decade or so.
However, it’s premature to label McIlroy as the next Woods. Before we can do that, he will have to perform like he did this past weekend on a consistent basis. He needs to show that it wasn’t a one-off performance.
And don’t forget McIlroy will have to do it with Woods breathing down his neck.
After watching McIlroy romp to victory and listening to commentators proclaim McIlroy the new king of the golfing realm, it’s easy to imagine Woods immediately going to work. Honing his swing, striving to get his putting stroke back, testing out his surgically repaired knee. Remember, this is the man who found a way to win the 2008 US Open practically on one leg.
Woods has seen off an army of challengers to his throne over his career. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, David Duval, Sergio Garcia, they were all supposed contenders to his crown. Only Mickelson could say he maybe got close to Woods.
So for now, let’s enjoy the amazing display of golf McIlroy exhibited over the weekend, instead of dubbing him as the second coming.
Maybe we’re witnessing the dawn of the Rory McIlroy era, and a new age for golf.
But only maybe.