McIlroy the star of the show heading to British Open


There’s really nothing new at the oldest championship in golf.

The buzz at the British Open is mainly about one player, the obvious choice among bookmakers, who has become such a fascinating figure that it’s almost as though the rest of the field at Royal St. George’s is being ignored.

For years, that was Tiger Woods.

Now it’s Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, the face of golf’s next generation.

The last meaningful shot McIlroy hit was a tap-in for par on the 18th green to complete an astounding performance at Congressional, where he shattered U.S. Open records en route to a winning score of 16-under 268.

Now, his every move is charted.

McIlroy twice went to Wimbledon, once sitting in the Royal Box, also meeting with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He went to Germany for a heavyweight championship fight. Video of McIlroy went viral, showing him as a wee lad appearing on TV shows as he hit plastic golf balls into a washing machine and talked about his dream of playing golf for a living. Sound familiar?

There was a television interview with Piers Morgan on CNN. There was a letter of congratulations from Prime Minister David Cameron.

And there is no sign of Woods.

The 14-time major champion and fallen star had not been much of a factor even when he was playing, except for that 31 on the front nine at The Masters that briefly put his name atop the leaderboard. Now he’s not playing at all. Woods no longer wears a protective boot for his left Achilles, but he’s not wearing golf spikes, either.

The British Open, which starts on Thursday at Royal St. George’s on the southeastern coast of England, will be the fourth major that Woods has missed since 2008. There was a time when Woods’ absence would siphon the excitement from a major.

Times have changed.

The top four players in the world ranking are European, starting with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood of England, followed by PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany and then McIlroy, the brightest star of the bunch. Even though it seemed unlikely Woods would play in the British Open, ticket sales are ahead of what they were the last time the Open was at Royal St. George’s in 2003.

“With Donald and Westwood at the head, with Kaymer third and McIlroy doing what he did, the European story is extremely strong,” Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said. “That’s what has the crowd buzzing. Of course, we wish Tiger was here. But there is plenty of interest over here at the moment. A lot of that has been mitigated by McIlroy.”

McIlroy decided not to play in the three weeks between the U.S. Open and the British Open, wanting instead to take care of as many corporate and media obligations as possible so that when he does return, it will be all about his golf.

That’s not likely to happen with his next tournament a major, in Britain no less, with Boy Wonder suddenly under the burden of expectations. A victory would make him only the seventh player to win the U.S. Open and British Open in the same season, a list that includes Woods, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones.

“It’s going to be very hard for Rory when he turns up next week to be concentrating on the Open Championship,” said Graeme McDowell, speaking from the experience of his U.S. Open title last summer. “He’ll still be living three or four weeks ago at Congressional. At the same time, being at home, he’s had two weeks to get the celebrating out of the system.”

McIlroy has shown wisdom and maturity beyond his 22 years, and now comes another test. He did remarkably well to forget about that 80 he shot in the second round at St. Andrews last year, and the more nefarious 80 he had in the final round at Augusta National when he squandered a four-shot lead. Now, he wants to follow the same script even in victory.

“The time to reflect will be at the end of the season and not halfway through it,” McIlroy wrote on his blog. “So I won’t be looking over my shoulder any more, just straight ahead and concentrating on getting more wins in the second half of the year. It is very important that I put everything that’s happened behind me now.”

McIlroy already has spent a few days at Royal St. George’s, a tough links that appears to be much more gentle than it was eight years ago when Ben Curtis, at the time No. 396 in the world, was the only player to break par.

A relatively dry spring has kept the rough from getting out of control, and the R&A did its part by adding width to a couple of holes that were only rumored to have fairways. Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and McIlroy were among those who practiced on the Sandwich links the week before the Open, and they liked what they saw.

“I think they have set it up perfectly,” Westwood said. “Hopefully, the weather will be nice and it won’t soften up too much and it will be one of those memorable Opens.”

Soft was the operative word at Congressional, where a combination of heat and rain kept the rough from growing and allowed the greens to remain accessible even on the weekend. No matter. McIlroy still was eight shots better than anyone else, which is one reason expectations are so high that he can be golf’s next big star.

McIlroy is only part of a generational shift, however. Charl Schwartzel won the Masters, Kaymer the PGA Championship and the defending champion at the British Open is Louis Oosthuizen. All of them are in their 20s, the first time the majors were owned by such youth in more than a century.

It’s another example of how much golf has changed in the 18 months since Woods vacated his throne. Woods is No. 17 in the world ranking, and a dozen players ahead of him are all younger. Only four of those players are Americans, and that’s another dynamic going into the third major of the season.

Americans now have gone five majors without winning one, their longest drought since the Masters was created in 1934. The best American hope? Hard to say. Steve Stricker is the top-ranked American at No. 5, and while Mickelson remains the most talented of the group at St. George’s, he has only one top 10 in the British Open.

“We’ll make a push again, the Americans will,” Stricker said. “When Tiger comes back, I’m sure he’ll be getting right back up there again. And Phil, he’ll be back up there again. So I think it’s just a cycle, and right now they’re at the top.”

The return of Woods is no longer such a sure thing.

He commanded so much attention for so long – even without having won a major in three years, he still is on a chronological pace to break Jack Nicklaus’ career record – that his fall makes the climb back up to the top look even more steep.

Adding to the climb is the arrival of McIlroy. He still only has one major, but it was a big one.

“His performance at the U.S. Open was spectacular,” Mickelson said. “But what Jack and Tiger have done throughout the course of their career demands respect, too. And until somebody performs at that level for a decade, it’s not fair to Jack or Tiger to compare anybody with them.”