There he was Tuesday at Wimbledon, meeting with Andy Murray and John McEnroe before the Scot’s practice session, later posing with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the locker room for a picture that McIlroy posted on Twitter. There was a time not long ago when Federer used to come out to watch Woods at golf tournaments in Doral and– Dubai.
McIlroy is the toast of golf, even to the point where the other three major champions – all in their 20s – are overlooked. It wasn’t so much the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland winning the U.S. Open, it was how he won it. McIlroy went wire-to-wire, his lead expanding from three shots to six shots to eight shots until he broke the scoring record by four shots and delivered the biggest blowout at a major since Woods in 2000 at St. Andrews.
The clear favorite going into this British Open? McIlroy, of course.
And suddenly, the question was whether McIlroy – not Woods – was capable of reaching the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. Never mind that he still has 17 majors to go, and that Woods is only four majors behind Nicklaus. McIlroy is looked upon as the future of golf. Woods hasn’t won in 18 months and doesn’t know when he will play again.
It’s enough to tempt Woods to speed up his rehabilitation of left knee and Achilles injuries and get back in the game.
But he’s in no hurry.
“Is it motivating? Absolutely not,” Woods said Tuesday at the AT&T National. “My motivation right now is to get back to where I can play the way I know I can play and feeling good again, because I haven’t felt good in a number of years. I’m looking forward to that.”
No doubt he was impressed with what McIlroy achieved at Congressional and the potential the kid possesses. Woods said as much two years ago when asked whether McIlroy could one day be No. 1 in the world.
“He has the composure. He has all of the components to be the best player in the world, there’s no doubt,” Woods said at Doral in March 2009. “It’s just a matter of time and experience, and then basically gaining that experience in big events. And I mean, geez, he’s only 19. Just give him some time, and I’m sure he’ll be there.”
It might be too early to say that McIlroy has arrived, although the buzz around him suggests that.
Even so, the timing couldn’t be better for him – or worse for Woods.
The longer Woods stays away, the easier it becomes for someone else to fill the void. Right now, that void is filled by McIlroy, with a little help from his European friends.
The new No. 1 is Luke Donald, the same player who Woods smoked in the final round of the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah. Another guy who reached the top of the world ranking was Martin Kaymer. Along with winning the PGA Championship last year at age 25, Kaymer started the season at Abu Dhabi and won by eight shots against the strongest field assembled this year in Europe. It was a blowout that only Woods used to deliver against such competition.
Woods still commands plenty of attention. That much was evident Tuesday at Aronimink, when a local TV reporter went live to announce that Woods was about to enter the room, and when the press conference was delayed 45 seconds so Golf Channel could carry it live. His prolonged absence will make his return that much more celebrated.
Right now, about the only intrigue with Woods is when he’ll play.
“He would quite possibly be missed less at this moment than when things happened a while back,” Justin Rose said. “But I think it’s because we’re getting used to him not being around as much. It’s been a couple years almost now, so there’s been a lot of other great stories in the meantime, a lot of opportunities for other guys to get their name in lights, and a lot of other reasons for fans to identify with other players, too.
“I think as time has gone by, we’ve been forced to have to look for new favorites, as well.”
Woods, indeed, has created ample opportunities. He won 31 times on the PGA Tour in the five years before his personal life caved in around him. His lowest output came in 2008, when he missed half the year because of knee surgery. Woods played six times on the PGA Tour and won four tournaments, including his 14th major at the U.S. Open.
In the last two years when he hasn’t won – and hasn’t played all that much – no one has won four times in a year on tour. Jim Furyk won three times in 2010, a career season for him.
Perhaps that explains why there have been 23 first-time winners on the PGA Tour since the start of 2010, and why the last five major champions were first-time winners of Grand Slam events.
Woods, meanwhile, is bemused by talk of him in the past tense.
“I’m 35. I’m not 65,” he said. “I’ve still got some years ahead of me. Golf is unlike any other sport. I mean, (Tom) Watson was what, 59 years old when he almost won? We can play for a very long time.”
At the moment, Woods is gone, and becoming forgotten. That’s not likely to change until he returns.