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Was Tiger talking more about Rory, or himself?

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Yes, I was surprised when Tiger Woods made his “Very similar to what Phil does,” comments about Rory McIlroy over the weekend at the British Open. I was not at all surprised that Woods feels that McIlroy’s game so far might resemble Phil Mickelson’s more than his own. That’s a fair observation. I was not surprised by the points he made about McIlroy’s inconsistency – the points seemed pretty sensible.

No, the shocking part was this: Tiger Woods said it.

In case you missed it, Woods was asked a little bit about Rory McIlroy as he blitzed the field and won the British Open. McIlroy became the third-youngest player to win three out of the four grand slam events behind Jack Nicklaus and, of course, Woods. There was a lot of history in the air.

The actual question to Woods was: “What is it like to see Rory dominate in a way that only you have in a major like this?” The question was, as we say in the business, a bit loaded. I suspect it was just a kinder way of asking, “How does it feel to see, as the old king of golf, the new king?”

Woods, I suspect, knew exactly what was being asked.

And his answer was plain: “Well, as you can see, the way he plays is pretty aggressively. When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It’s one or the other. If you look at his results, he’s kind of that way. Very similar to what Phil does. He has his hot weeks, and he has his weeks where he's off. And that’s just the nature of how he plays the game – it’s no right way or wrong way.”

The answer was, as we say in the business, a bit loaded. It sure seems like what Woods was saying was: Look, Rory can get hot. Good for him. But don’t go comparing him to me now. My game at its best was pure consistency. I won four major championships in a row. I won nine majors out of 30. His game is like Mickelson’s – brilliant some weeks, dreadful other weeks. That’s all well and good for him. But that’s NOT how I played golf.

Like I say, it was a perfectly fair point. And it was refreshingly honest from a guy who doesn’t often say what’s on his mind. And it was also stunning because Tiger Woods in his prime NEVER talked honestly about other golfers. Not in public. It seems to me this answer says a little bit about Rory McIlroy. And it says a lot about Tiger Woods.

Before we get into all that, let’s break down Rory and Tiger a little bit.

When Woods was 21 years old, he won the Masters with a record score.

When McIlroy was 22 years old, he won the U.S. Open with a record score.

OK, similar. What happened next? Woods made the cut at his next 10 major championships but he did not win any of them. He was in the process of rebuilding his swing so that it could take him to the next level, which is one of the more remarkable decisions in sports history. At a time when almost every golfer would have just let it ride – after all, Woods was hitting it longer than anyone, higher than anyone, and he putted better than anyone – he decided that he needed to be more consistent if he wanted to achieve his huge goals. Woods did not intend to win three major championships or five or even eight like Tom Watson did. No, he wanted 19. He wanted Jack.

In his 11th grand slam after the record-setting Masters, Woods finally won the PGA Championship. After that he contended at Augusta, then pulled off one of the most extraordinary feats in golf history by winning four grand slams in a row.



Now, what about McIlroy? After the U.S. Open, he was basically dreadful in his next five grand slams. He missed one cut and did not finish better than 25th in any of them. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, he ran away with the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island by eight shots. He followed that up with six more rather forgettable major tournaments (two back-ended top 10 finishes and one missed cut included) and then this past week he routed the field wire-to-wire to win the British Open.

So, on the one hand, Woods is right: McIlroy has been all over the place.

On the other hand, McIlroy has played 13 major championship since his breakthrough at the U.S. Open, and he won two of them. Woods, in the 13 major championships after his Masters breakthrough, won, yes, two of them. So, in the end, didn’t they really accomplish the same thing?

Well, not exactly the same. What’s different is those tournaments they did not win. Woods was so much more present – he had six Top 10 finishes aside from his victories and McIlroy had two. Woods did not come close to missing a cut, and McIlroy missed two. This is the consistency piece that Woods is talking about. Even before he raised his game to previously unseen heights, Woods proved that he was going to be there time and again, that was the defining essence of his golf. He did not HAVE bad weeks.

McIlroy’s game, like Woods said, is so much mercurial. There’s absolutely no way to know what will happen at the PGA Championship coming up. McIlroy might win by six shots. And he might miss the cut. Woods, not surprisingly, does not have much use for that kind of game.

But that’s the easy part of all this – we know that McIlroy has not figured out how to harness his great talent tournament after tournament. Maybe he will become like Mickelson – not that’s there’s anything wrong with having a Hall of Fame career like Phil’s. But that’s also not a fair comparison, and Woods knows it. Mickelson did not win his first major championship until he was 34, and that age is still almost a decade away for McIlroy. Mickelson did not win the third leg of the grand slam until he was 43. McIlroy has more major championships at 25 than Tom Watson did, than Arnold Palmer did, more than Gary Player and Ben Hogan and Sam Snead combined. His inconsistency may be a lasting part of his game. Then again, it might not. He might just be figuring things out. I’d bet on his future.

Meanwhile, there’s Tiger Woods, closing fast on his 39th birthday, coming off his worst weekend finish ever at a major. He barely made the cut and then played dreadfully over the weekend; 64-year-old Tom Watson not only beat him but beat him by five shots. Of course, this was just Woods’ second tournament back after a three-month layoff to recover from a pretty serious back injury. There were a few promising signs (like his solid first round) and so there are reasons to not put too much stock into the performance. Still, in golf, the scoreboard does not equivocate: Woods: 69th place.

And his subtle jab at McIlroy (and his longtime nemesis Mickelson) does say something. According to those who have found themselves close to Woods, his disdain for Mickelson’s sporadic game and boisterous personality has always been there. But he would never have said anything about it publicly … because to say something publicly would be acknowledge that he actually THOUGHT about Phil Mickelson. And this was something Tiger Woods could not acknowledge.

See, Tiger Woods at his peak was unreachable. He was untouchable. His only rival was himself. Whatever he did in the first or second round of a major, he always said: “I feel like I’m in good position.” No matter how many shots back he was, he always just wanted to “play my game.” The only thing that mattered to Woods about other golfers was that if you put enough pressure on them, they would eventually crack.

Of course, he did not say that. He did not have to say that or anything else. He knew. They knew. And, as the old line goes, he knew they knew. And they knew he knew they knew.

I’m convinced the young Tiger Woods would have brushed off the Rory McIlroy question. He would have said something like, “He’s a great young player and he’s having a great week,” and left it at that. He would not have wanted to make any points about McIlroy’s inconsistency. He certainly would not have felt it necessary to drudge up Phil Mickelson’s inconsistency.

So why did he do it? Two thoughts come to mine. One thought is simply that Woods, at age 38, is beginning to embrace his role as the face of golf. Arnold Palmer … Gary Player … Jack Nicklaus … Tom Watson … Nick Faldo … these guys were asked a million questions about every golf thing you could imagine. These included questions about the promise of every young player who came along and questions about every rival who was trying to take their place at the top of the world. Woods never cared much for those questions. More than that, he never seemed they were appropriate.

This time, though, he answered the question. He gave an honest assessment of McIlroy’s erratic game. He was careful to say he wasn’t judging (“it’s no right way or wrong way”) but he was willing to say what he thought needed to be said: When McIlroy’s good, he’s good; but that’s not everything.

The second thought is that Woods is beginning to understand what has become impossible to ignore: He’s not going to ever dominate the golf world again. He will win again, he will probably win a major again, but the Tiger Woods who separated himself from the world, who played in his own stratosphere, that golfer is not coming back. The injuries, the scars, the years will not let him come back.

Rory McIlroy is a better golfer than Tiger Woods now. He hits the ball longer, he hits it higher, he hits it straighter. Woods has more experience and a magical short game, but the experience gap shrinks and the best pressure putting stroke since Nicklaus begins to shake slightly. Woods’ used to intimidate golfers who believed him to be unwavering … but they’ve seen waver. Woods used to take leads into Sundays and slam the door … but the Sunday leads are tougher to build.

And all these things, I imagine, are difficult for a one-of-a-kind athlete to process. It has been more than six years since Tiger Woods won a major championship. Rory McIlroy was not there in 2008 when Woods won the U.S. Open on one leg. McIlroy was a 19-year-old kid just starting as a professional. He has lived a lot of life in those six years. And when someone asked Woods about Rory McIlroy dominating the way he dominated, Woods offered a stunningly personal response. Hey, Rory’s inconsistent. Hey Rory’s like Phil. I wasn’t like that.

Here’s what I think he was saying: Don’t write me off yet.