You may be excused if you thought otherwise. It’s a simple mistake.
In the wake of McIlroy’s dominant, persuasive victory at the 94th PGA Championship, the comparisons come quick and easy, but they are two very different players, two very different people.
Rory smiles. A broad, gaping smile for anyone and everyone. He wants people to like him, tries his best to please others. Tiger has always been more brooding. His steely-eyed demeanor and unending focus were never intended to win friends and influence people.
Which is kind of ironic in a way. Rory may be wildly popular around the world, but he’ll never own the same cross-cultural significance nor inclusive impact as Tiger.
That’s only partly because they introduced themselves to us in different ways. Rory’s first chance to win a major championship evaporated on the back nine at Augusta National when he was 21. Just months after announcing, “Hello, world,” Tiger turned it into his personal playground at the same age.
No, Rory McIlroy is not The Next Tiger Woods.
But he does one hell of an impersonation.
Clad in a red shirt and firing at flagsticks, Rory looked unmistakably like Tiger throughout the entire final round, pulling away from the field to turn the back nine into yet another major-championship coronation.
From his ability to separate from the pack to a final-hole birdie punctuated by an exuberant fist pump, it was the stuff of Tiger in his prime major-winning years. Even the way McIlroy’s peers discussed the performance in wide-eyed awe and effusive praise was reminiscent of how Woods’ fellow competitors have often discussed his achievements after a major win.
Ian Poulter: “Everybody should take note. The guy's pretty good.”
Carl Pettersson: “He was just better than everybody -- and it was clear to everybody, I think.”
Graeme McDowell: “His score speaks for itself. He's a hell of a talented player.”
All of which leads to the burning question: So just why isn’t he The Next Tiger Woods?
It’s because he’s a little Jack Nicklaus. He can overpower a course from tee to green, owning an innate ability to step on the gas pedal and not let up until the final putt has dropped.
It’s because he’s a little Greg Norman. When McIlroy lost the Masters in agonizing, embarrassing fashion last year, he didn’t hide from the cameras, instead handling the situation with grace and humility.
Mostly, though, it’s because no player should be saddled with the responsibility of having to be The Next anyone, especially if that title is followed by the name of a 14-time major champion.
“It's tough to say that Rory is a Tiger Woods type player,” said McDowell, a friend and fellow Northern Ireland native. “Tiger Woods is a once-in-a-lifetime type player, and Rory McIlroy is at least a once-in-a-decade type player. He's that good. I've been saying it for years how good he is.”
We get it. McIlroy’s win on Sunday was his second major in the last seven and mirrored his eight-stroke differential from last year’s U.S. Open. It was the largest margin of victory in PGA Championship history, eclipsing Nicklaus’ seven-shot win in 1980.
That’s not even close to the most eye-popping statistic.
Not enough? Try this: He’s just the 13th player since 1950 to win majors in back-to-back years. Of the other dozen, 10 are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame and two – Woods and Padraig Harrington – are destined for induction sometime soon.
Mention a comparison to Woods, though, and McIlroy blanches at the correlation.
“I don't know,” he said. “I mean, I've won my second major at the same age as he had. But he went on that incredible run like 2000, 2001, 2002 and won so many. You know, I'd love to sit up here and tell you that I'm going to do the same thing, but I just don't know.
“It's been great to win my first major last year and to back that up with another one this year; I can't ask for any more. I just want to keep working hard, keep practicing, and hopefully there's a few more of these in my closet when my career finishes.”
When his career does finish, when his shaggy hair has turned a light shade of gray and he’s gone from being a flatbelly to a potbelly, we can analyze whether McIlroy lived up to the standard set by Woods or even surpassed it.
That’s not for now, though. For now, any acknowledgment toward him being The Next Tiger Woods is premature and unwarranted.
He doesn’t need it anyway. Based on what we witnessed this week, it’s good enough simply being The First Rory McIlroy.