DORAL, Florida (AP)—One of the brightest young stars in golf, Rory McIlroy hasbeen making news over the last few weeks for giving his opinion on Tiger Woods ,and there really isn’t much good to say about the game of the No. 5 player inthe world.
Yet the perception is that McIlroy is taking one too many jabs at Woods, andthat he is soon to join the list of players whose criticism comes back to hauntthem.
But that assumes it was criticism in the first place.
In an essay under McIlroy’s byline in Sports Illustrated’s “Golf Plus”section, McIlroy said that Woods is not playing as well as he did a couple ofyears ago, let alone a decade ago when no one was close to him in the game.
“I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did,”McIlroy said in the essay. “He never seemed like he would make a mistake. It’snot that he’s playing badly. He’s simply playing badly by Tiger’s standards.He’s playing like an ordinary golfer. People expect more of him because of whathe has achieved.”
Indeed, there are questions as to whether Woods can rule golf the way he didin 2000, when his nine wins included three straight majors. Or the way he didafter his father died in 2006, when he won 18 of 33 tournaments worldwide, fourof eight majors and had a seven-month stretch without ever losing.
Can anything else be disputed?
The problem is that Woods, through a dozen years of unprecedented dominance,has created a culture of being off limits to other players giving honestanswers.
And remember, answers usually are the product of a question.
This only looks bad on two counts. One is that it’s easy to pile on Woodsright now, even though he has only himself to blame. The other is that thecommentary is coming from a 21-year-old with all of two career victories, whohas never faced Woods at his best.
“That’s the answer a 21-year-old would give, isn’t it?” Lee Westwood saidlast week with a smile. “I think having played with Tiger since 1997 orsomething like that … there’s an old saying that class is permanent and formis fickle. He’s the classiest player I’ve ever played with and I’d be wiseenough to know not to write him off.
“I’ve seen him play poorly and win tournaments,” Westwood said. “Hedoesn’t necessarily have to get back to where he was.”
And then he whimsically added, “I’ll have a word with Rory later.”
Last year, McIlroy talked about Woods before the Ryder Cup, when theAmerican had yet to be added to the U.S. team as a captain’s pick. In aninterview with an Irish newspaper, he said he expected Woods to be in Wales.
“I would love to face him,” McIlroy said. “Unless his game rapidlyimproves … I think anyone in the European team would fancy their chancesagainst him.”
The interview took place a week after Woods finished next-to-last atFirestone, where he had won seven times and never finished out of the top 10.Woods had his worst 72-hole score as a professional that week. He didn’t lookcapable of beating anyone.
A month later, there were rumors swirling around Cog Hill that Woods hadtold McIlroy, “Be careful what you wish for.” Woods denied that, although hewas aware of the comments. And while he mentioned McIlroy in context withStephen Ames , Woods also gave the kid a break. “At least Rory said, ‘Unless mygame improves,”’ Woods said, a concession to fact.
The reference to Ames came from the 2006 Match Play Championship, when Ameswas the No. 64 seed and jokingly said on the practice range about his chances,“Anything can happen—especially where he’s hitting the ball.”
It was harmless humor, although the quote became far more serious in the“lift, clean and paste” era of the Internet that eliminated all context. Askedabout it after the match, Woods only mentioned the score—9 and 8.
There have been others. Rory Sabbatini once said Woods looked as “beatableas ever” after losing to him at Quail Hollow, and three months later, Woodswent from a one-shot deficit to Sabbatini to an eight-shot victory at Firestone.
Some of these grudges are overcooked.
Woods wasn’t bothered by Sabbatini’s comments as much as he was Sabbatiniwithdrawing from the Chevron World Challenge before the final round. And whileVijay Singh ’s caddie wrote, “Tiger Who?” on the back of his cap at thePresidents Cup before Woods’ 2-and-1 victory, he and Singh have long had mutualrespect for each other.
McIlroy’s only playful jab came two weeks ago at the Match PlayChampionship, when he was asked about a potential changing of the guard with somany good young players. He started to say that Woods and Phil Mickelson havenot gotten any worse when he paused and said with a smile, “Well, yeah, I meanI don’t think Phil has gotten any worse.”
If he is guilty of anything, McIlroy believes it’s getting his message outthe right way. He recently saw an interview with Sean Foley, Woods’ swing coach,who said that Woods had spoiled golf fans with a level never before seen. Andwith the depth on tours across oceans, it might be hard to repeat that.
Maybe the kid should keep it short, for it was on Twitter where McIlroy madehimself perfectly clear.
“Hate that the media thinks I’m taking jabs at Tiger all the time. Bestthat’s ever lived. Ever. Just not playing his best at the minute. If he playshis best we’re all screwed. Hard to dodge the Tiger questions when you get 10every interview you do.”