Rory McIlroy had just finished polishing off the field at the Honda Classic in impressive fashion, never relinquishing the 54-hole lead, prevailing by two strokes and becoming the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer in the process.
That increasingly famous perma-smile etched across his face, he sat down at the dais in the tournament’s interview room and was asked questions about the past, the present and – mostly – the ever brightening future.
In one such instance, McIlroy was posed with a query about the current state of the game. After all, Phil Mickelson has enjoyed some inspired play over the season’s first two months, Tiger Woods reverted to form on Sunday while posting an 8-under 62 to tie for second place and of course Rory’s own monumental performance. As a fan of golf, what did he think about it all?
“Exciting times,” he ruminated with a head nod.
Allow me to expand upon that notion. These aren’t just exciting times; they could be the beginning of golf’s next Golden Age, a period serving as an intersection between those superstars still successfully navigating the back nine of their careers and those still traversing the early journey of the front nine.
Big Bang Theory notwithstanding, most eras are gradually transitioned into. There are rarely singular incidents which marks a definitive passage from one to the next.
This instance is no different, though it is earmarked by a few pivotal moments in the timeline.
The so-called Tiger Era ended – or at least suffered an interminable delay – when his Thanksgiving night fire hydrant crash in 2009 and subsequent personal scandal precluded a lengthy display of uncharacteristic play. It later converged with what many termed the Rory Era, starting with his eye-popping eight-shot victory at last year’s U.S. Open.
Similarly, the date March 4, 2012 should persevere as one of the more pertinent milestones on the extended timeline. Never mind the fact that McIlroy teed off 70 minutes after Woods in the final round of the Honda Classic, ensuring that they likely never even saw each other. Forget that Woods never inched closer than two strokes to a lead that McIlroy never surrendered throughout the day.
No, this may not have been Duel in the Sun, Part II, a reenactment of the 1977 Open Championship throwdown in which 27-year-old Tom Watson edged decade-older legend Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry for his third career major title. What it did, though, was provide hope that the current generation can and will spark comparable encounters in coming years.
What we witnessed on Sunday was just a small glimpse into the next Golden Age in the game. I’m not telling any golf fans anything they don’t already know, obviously, as the excitement level emanating from such a noteworthy tournament is palpable and nearly tangible. Even McIlroy understands the effect that he, in large part, is employing on the game.
“I think it's fantastic for the game,” he said. “The more that we can create interest in the game and get more people watching, it can only be good. You know, seeing Phil do what he did at Pebble; Tiger playing the way he did today; hopefully I'm in there somewhere, getting to No. 1. It's great for the game.”
It’s about more than just those three players, though. Just as the original Duel in the Sun transpired amidst older generation stars such as Gary Player and Lee Trevino still in the mix with younger up-and-comers like Seve Ballesteros, this Golden Age is about several players.
Erstwhile No. 1-ranked golfers Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are very much part of the picture, as are twenty-something major winners Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel and Keegan Bradley. Toss in some old-school pros with possibly a little gas left in the tank – Ernie Els and Vijay Singh come to mind – and the game hardly lacks for potential storylines on a week-in, week-out basis.
Much like on Sunday, however, it will all circle back to Tiger and Rory – or as some people have deemed them, Tiger and New Tiger.
The 22-year-old McIlroy has the obvious tools and talent necessary to someday rival the storied accomplishments of Woods, 36, though the latter will have long since faded away when the former is still trying to reach such levels, all while youngsters termed New Rory nip at his heels.
No offense to this weekend’s festivities, but the true test of such a rivalry – or maybe the most notable intersection between the generational gap – won’t happen at a Honda Classic or any other PGA Tour stop.
Woods knows that, claiming acceptance for McIlroy’s new world ranking will come easier than his predecessors based on having a major championship to his name. And McIlroy knows it, too, already looking ahead to the year’s first major as the possible high-water mark for this newest era.
“I think everyone is excited for Augusta to roll around,” he explained. “I definitely know I am. Looking forward to getting back there and giving it another shot.”
Exciting times, indeed.