In golf's new age, Rory has plenty of challengers


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Throughout history mankind has had the Age of Enlightenment, the Dark Ages and now, at least according to a few overzealous scribes, the Age of Rory.

That premise, however, is predicated on the rise and fall of the Age of Tiger, which seems a tad premature regardless of his ongoing therapy and unclear status for this week’s PGA Championship and beyond.

That Adam Scott, who was dethroned atop the world golf ranking on Sunday by McIlroy; Sergio Garcia, the Northern Irishman’s rival at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational; and a host of other would-be kings will have a say in the matter is also worth considering.

But the main reason golf may want to hold off on the coronation comes from the man himself. Per the status quo, on Tuesday at Valhalla Golf Club the 25-year-old proved to be the clearest head in the room.

“Sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon,” said McIlroy, fresh off back-to-back victories at the Open Championship and last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Much like he did after winning the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes and the 2012 PGA Championship by the same margin, McIlroy has proven he's just as adept sidestepping media hazards as he is the more traditional kind of trouble found on a golf course.

Throughout last year’s swoon, McIlroy repeatedly dismissed concerns about his game. Similarly, on Tuesday at the PGA, he shrugged off the hyperbole that often follows major championships, including one particularly pointed question.

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“A lot of us are talking about the era of Rory, and your face slightly tells me what you’re going to say,” said one scribe.

After stumbling with his response for a moment, McIlroy did what he always does and spoke from the heart as well as the head.

“I’ve had a great run of golf and I’ve played well over the past few months,” he said. “I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game.”

After enduring the worst year of his career in 2013, McIlroy has become the consensus candidate to assume that dominant title, having won three of his last seven starts in dominant fashion.

But with a monsoon of respect for McIlroy and everything he has accomplished, comparisons to Woods continue to be wildly unfair and fundamentally flawed.

Before Tiger turned 26, he’d won five major titles including the career Grand Slam, which McIlroy can match next spring at Augusta National, in addition to 24 PGA Tour titles.

It was a dominance that impacted an opponent’s psyche like no player had done since Jack Nicklaus was making his march to that historic 18 major bottle caps.

“There was a time when probably most guys felt like we were beaten before we got out there. That's different now for tons of reasons,” Scott said. “It's only motivating to see Rory play so well, and I know I've said a lot that I feel this is my time, so I've got to beat whatever Rory is trying out there and I believe I can.”

On the 14th anniversary of Woods’ victory at the 2000 PGA Championship played at Valhalla, it’s safe to say Bob May wasn’t sizing up his long-term prospects against the guy in the red shirt on that fateful Sunday.

Yet for Rory there is no shortage of challengers. Four players can unseat McIlroy this week atop the world golf ranking: Scott, Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose.

The debate follows that fields are deeper today than they were even 15 years ago, a take that Woods himself has used in the past. On any given major Sunday, anyone from Martin Kaymer to Jordan Spieth has the ability to boat-race the field.

“It gets harder every year, just because the fields get deeper. More guys with a chance to win. What did we have, 16, 17 straight first-time winners?” Woods said last month at Royal Liverpool. “It's just getting deeper. It's getting harder to win. The margin is so much smaller. It's only going to continue to be the case.”

As magnificent as McIlroy’s play has been in his young career, he’s also shown himself prone to competitive lapses like last year’s winless turn through the PGA Tour.

Perhaps we have arrived in the Age of Rory; just don’t tell any of McIlroy’s contemporaries.