More than a decade ago, Earl Woods told the story of a young Tiger Woods and the things that motivated him.
He talked about an 11-year-old Tiger making birdies through a rainstorm, never once complaining as other players trudged back to the clubhouse.
He talked about Tiger’s view of competition and how he never looked for excuses or for his opponents to make mistakes.
“Tiger was always taught, ‘Play the course,’” Earl said in the spring of 2002. “He’s looking to beat the damn course.”
From 1997 to 2009, Tiger did exactly that, maybe at the highest level the game has ever known. He won 14 majors with two coaches and three swings. He made 142 straight cuts, golf’s version of Joe DiMaggio’s untouchable hitting streak.
And even when Vijay Singh supplanted him as No. 1 in the world in 2004 – or when Phil Mickelson picked up consecutive majors from 2005 to 2006 – few doubted that the best player in the world, at his best, was still Tiger Woods.
Over the last five weeks, Rory McIlroy has upended that truth, winning a second major by eight shots and back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events against stacked competition.
There goes Rory, running wind sprints with the New York Knicks. There goes Rory on Jimmy Fallon. (How Tiger of you, Rory!)
Rory’s rise to No. 1 feels different than Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald or Lee Westwood’s spells atop the world golf rankings. Kaymer won the 2010 PGA and now resides outside the top 30. Donald and Westwood, for all their talents, remain unfulfilled on professional golf’s four biggest weeks.
Rory is a big-game hunter. The career grand slam could be his by July.
Tiger has already proven he can win again, but the golf world has undoubtedly shifted. His name on a leaderboard does not inspire fear as it once did. His putting is streaky, his body fragile enough to be one awkward swing away from the disabled list.
And yet to dismiss Tiger, even at 36 and with Rory ascendant, seems like a fool’s game.
Tiger does not have to be the best player on the planet to win more majors. But does he have to be the best to win five more?
That is what is so intriguing about the coming years and the intersection of Rory’s emergence and Tiger’s ambitions.
For the longest time, Tiger’s motivations could be defined in simple terms – to break Jack Nicklaus’ record for majors and become the greatest golfer of all time.
To beat the damn course.
In March, before his victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Memorial and the AT&T National, Tiger started to subtly reveal other motivating factors. He began showing fellow Tour players video of his son, Charlie, swinging a club. Charlie and Tiger’s daughter, Sam, were in the gallery at the Honda Classic (where Tiger shot 62 on Sunday to lose to Rory by two shots).
Tiger was taught to beat the course, and on some days he will.
But from now until the end of his chase, someone cut from a similar cloth will be standing in his way.
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