Hey, I know you were wondering, so I just figured I’d throw it out there before you asked.
In the wake of McIlroy’s fourth career major championship title, it’s a relevant contemplation.
At 25, he becomes the third-youngest in the modern era to reach this mark – behind only Jack Nicklaus and, you guessed it, that guy named Woods.
This has already been hailed as the Rory Era, a notion that won’t dissipate with his latest triumph. He is undeniably the current face of the game. The proverbial torch has been passed.
All of which should have 19th holes around the world buzzing with debates over whether Rory is the “Next Tiger,” a duplicate production of the game’s last dominant figure.
Well, he isn’t.
He might be better. Or he might not. Only time will reveal that answer.
But here’s what we know definitively: He’s not Tiger.
He’s completely different.
Those three words, of course, can be taken in a lot of different contexts. They can relate to the technical part of their games, as Woods has always strived to change for the better, while McIlroy can’t comprehend such reconstruction. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said with a laugh.)
They can pertain to their disparate personalities, Tiger playing the role of steely-eyed assassin on the course and tight-lipped rhetorician off it, while Rory’s candor inside the ropes translates to a similar temperament elsewhere.
In this context, it refers to their long-term goals. It’s all about how they approached the game from paradoxical angles, but still wound up in similar positions at similar ages.
From the time Woods was a young child with posters of Nicklaus adorning his bedroom walls, he knew he wanted to someday become the all-time leading major championship winner. He was 10 when the Golden Bear won his 18th at Augusta National, but across the country in Cypress, Calif., he was keenly aware.
Tiger has never wavered from that goal, either. To this day, he’s never allowed for public introspection and admitted anything to the effect of, “Hey, if I only wind up second all-time, that’s cool, too.”
That’s not Rory. No, Rory grew up wanting to be the world’s best golfer, but without the tangible pursuit of hallowed records.
Just a week ago, he was asked about chasing the game’s most sacred mark.
“It's not something I ever thought about or dreamed of,” he explained. “I'd like to win my fourth and that's it, and just try and keep going like that, just one after the other. And if it adds up to whatever number it adds up to in my career, then that's great. I don't want to put that pressure on myself. I don't want to put that burden of a number to try and attain.”
You might choose not to believe him. You might think he’s simply trying to avoid more attention, trying to keep the pressure from being hoisted upon his already encumbered shoulders.
Or you might think that last week was last week and this week is this week. You might think that two majors in a row and four by the age of 25 will have McIlroy suddenly pondering the finish line and placing that specific number in his head to someday achieve.
You’d be wrong.
“I've got to take it one small step at a time,” he said Sunday night. “I think the two next realistic goals are the career grand slam and trying to become the most successful European player ever. Nick Faldo has six [majors]; Seve [Ballesteros] has five. Obviously the career Grand Slam coming up at Augusta in eight months time or whatever it is, they are the next goals. And hopefully, when I achieve those, I can start to think about other things.”
No variation of those words were ever uttered from Woods’ mouth. Nor were these, another McIlroy missive of modesty following his Valhalla victory.
“At 25 years of age, I didn't think I would be in this position.”
Let’s compare that with Woods’ thoughts following his fourth major championship, an eight-stroke conquest at St. Andrews when he was 24.
“I thought I'd be at this point faster than it took," he boasted at the time.
They are different golfers, but more significantly they are different people with different mindsets.
There are some very logical reasons for Rory to be compared with Tiger after this win – and in some ways, they’re alike. Both great talents at a young age; both capable of dominating their competitors; both able to put their games into another gear down the stretch at a major.
The colossal disparity comes in their mindsets. It comes from their long-term goals as junior golfers and how those goals never wavered.
Like the dominant force that preceded him, McIlroy has been able to take the golf world by storm at an extraordinarily young age.
But he is no Tiger Woods.
He’s completely different.