This was supposed to be the year. The year of Old vs. New. Experience vs. Youth. Crafty Gamesmanship vs. Raw Talent. The year a friendly rivalry turned into just a rivalry. The year we've been waiting for.
Instead, it’s been the year of the anchored-putting ban, the year of deer-antler spray, the year of the lawsuit, the year of the Aussie at Augusta, the year of the racially charged comments, the year of the weather delay and, yes, the year Tiger returned (again).
But Tiger vs. Rory? Nope. Hasn’t happened yet. Hasn’t even come close.
A rivalry that seemed predestined – if not by major championship victory predictions, then at least by the Nike marketing team – has stalled on the tracks, one train chugging full steam ahead as the other has lost its route.
Woods’ puzzling performance at this weekend’s Memorial Tournament notwithstanding – he finished 20 strokes behind winner Matt Kuchar – the game’s No. 1-ranked player has more than held up his part of the deal so far, with wins in exactly half of his eight PGA Tour starts.
None of them, however, has come with the heir apparent breathing down his neck over the closing holes. McIlroy famously claimed two major championship titles before his 24th birthday, but has gone from extraordinary to simply extra ordinary, that space between the two words as empty as his trophy shelf this season.
Granted, the lack of a true rivalry can be explained in a variety of different ways – foremost, of course, is the fact that golf simply isn’t a sport which lends itself to such relationships. With fields decidedly deeper than those of past generations, forging any sort of mano a mano duel – even between the two most talented players – is an exercise in brevity, if not futility.
But a rivalry also has to be more than Hammer vs. Nail, and to call the one between Woods and McIlroy this year any differently is a mistake. They’ve now played in the same event on seven occasions, with Rory’s share of 57th place at Muifield Village his first time bettering Tiger, but hardly anything to write home about.
Speaking of home, there’s been plenty of hand-wringing back in Holywood and surrounding areas after McIlroy's much ballyhooed switch to Nike equipment has yielded middling results so far. While McIlroy’s four top-10s in 11 worldwide starts, including a best finish of solo second at the Valero Texas Open, would be cause for optimism for many pros, it’s left him searching for answers.
“I'm pretty frustrated. I'm trying not to let it get to me, [but] it is what it is,” he said after an opening-round 78. Two days later, he was scored only three strokes better and culminated his round by explaining, “It's more to do with just committing and really getting through the ball. I guess just being more aggressive through the ball instead of guiding a little bit yesterday, something you definitely shouldn't do.”
While McIlroy contends that outside agencies – and yes, in some cases “agencies” should be read in the literal sense – haven’t affected his game, it’s hard to believe that he is competing without a cluttered mind right now. Though many observers will look only at the results to determine that his play is suffering, we should look at past history as an indicator, as well.
In fact, it is the player to whom he is most often compared – fairly or not – that McIlroy most resembles right now.
During the 18-month period from mid-1997 through the early part of 1999, Woods hardly struggled, but added just a single trophy from the 1998 BellSouth Classic to his mantel. It’s easy to envision McIlroy similarly going through these growing pains right now.
Let us count the ways.
Woods fired his initial manager, Hughes Norton, during this time. McIlroy is on the verge of making his second such switch in the past two years, reportedly forming his own representative team.
Woods gradually started to shift from Titleist equipment to Nike during this period, though didn’t get fully absorbed into Nike’s equipment line until a few years after. McIlroy has made more of a definitive adaption this year.
Woods even parted ways with his girlfriend after a few years as a pro. McIlroy followed suit.
And there are some who are predicting that the next domino in Camp Rory to fall will be caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. If so, it would mirror Woods’ breakup with Mike “Fluff” Cowan back in 1999.
Consider it all part of McIlroy’s need to find the right formula going forward. Some of these moves will have more of an impact than others; equipment and caddie will – or at least, should – be greater factors than girlfriend and agent.
These are the problems with being a global superstar at age 24. The maturation process is still ongoing; it just happens to be in front of millions of awaiting eyeballs. Keep this in mind, though, when assessing McIlroy’s on-course performance recently.
That rivalry with Woods has yet to take root, but for McIlroy, so many moving parts are eerily similar to the early career of the man he continues to chase.