Skip to main content

Hawk's Nest: Rory taking the torch and running

Getty Images

There was never going to be another Michael Jordan, the prophets declared, but when a 6-foot-8, 260-pound manchild began merging his incomparable physical skills with acquired leadership qualities, the NBA had itself another transcendent superstar – a player who clearly could dominate in any generation.

We can argue over whether LeBron James will win as many championships as Jordan, but rings aren’t the sole measure of individual greatness. Besides, Jordan’s popularity helped spawn an international influx that has made pro basketball a deeper and more evenly balanced product.

Earlier this year, there was talk of redesigning the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. The premise was legitimized when several of the game’s notables brandished a chisel and began working on their own stone walls. Figuratively speaking, James had earned strong consideration. Comparisons to Jordan no longer begin and end with a chuckle.

Like the golfer he once idolized, Rory McIlroy is just better than everyone else. Unlike Tiger Woods, he has unexpectedly abridged the gap between dominant eras, successfully clearing the bar Woods so dramatically raised after all those years of shuffling and parity in the 1980s and early ‘90s.

“Greg Norman couldn’t handle Woods being better than him, and he was never heard from again,” a tour pro texted me Sunday evening. “Will be most interesting when Tiger comes back, how he will deal with not being as good as Rory.”

Perhaps we already know. Perhaps Woods’ ongoing battles with health, poor form and age have surreptitiously provided him with an exit strategy. Does Red Shirt never win again? Doubtful, but to watch him wince and grasp for answers this summer while another guy performs at a level once reserved only for him …

The parallels may not be uncanny, but they’re certainly worth reviewing. Woods rearranged history at the 1997 Masters, and then went through a two-year period when he wasn’t as good. McIlroy claimed two major titles by eight shots apiece, and then struggled mightily amid career-related changes in 2013.

Red Shirt’s reign effectively ended when his personal life (and marriage) unraveled in late 2009. McIlromance took the same highway north, seemingly trimming three strokes off his score the minute he broke up with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

Love lost, tournaments won. Those 4 a.m. phone calls from Tel Aviv can’t be good for the short game.

“I’ve put more time into my golf and refocused in a way,” the Irish Lad admitted last week. “It’s the only thing I have. I’ve got my family and my friends, but I’ve really immersed myself in my game.”

That’s precisely how his boyhood hero got there – with a single-mindedness bent on competitive superiority and a work ethic that had him on the practice green until dark the night before the 2000 U.S. Open. Woods was making everything that evening. As former caddie Steve Williams once told me, however, not all of them were going in the center of the cup.

I don’t have a chisel in my hand, but McIlwin’s back-to-back major titles are far more significant than his lopsided victories at Congressional and Kiawah. Those first two were the offshoot of immense natural ability, no Sunday sweat necessary. Liverpool and Valhalla were tougher fights against better opponents; Rory basically won this latest one with a birdie on the 71st hole.

The boy has become a man, his achievements now framed by performance under pressure, his supremacy reaffirmed by the speck of a legend in his rear-view mirror. Torch-passings are vastly overrated, but when the 2014 PGA champion arrived Sunday evening to lay his hands on the Wanamaker Trophy and the lid came off, I swear to you, yesteryear fell aimlessly to the ground.

Literally and figuratively, metaphorically and historically, Rory is quite a story.

IT WAS A mega-memorable Sunday before the crazy finish, before an awkward melding of the final two pairings on the 72nd hole led to a chaotic – perhaps even compromising – scenario at the worst possible time. There were a number of elements to the situation that should have bothered any serious golf fan – and should have annoyed all four players involved.

Let’s start with the lightest crimes and go from there:

• Bernd Wiesberger, who is at least fighting for a spot on the European Ryder Cup team, is reduced to the role of speedbump at the par-5 18th by virtue of his closing 74. This is no way to end a major championship, especially for a player who earned a spot in Sunday’s final group. The dude deserved better.

• The decision for McIlroy and Wiesberger to “play up” appeared to be made haphazardly by PGA of America officials – not by Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, who were in the penultimate group and reserve that right as competitors.

• If the guys in ties made the call, why wasn’t it discussed among all four players while they were on the 18th tee? Why wasn’t the subject broached much earlier – it was obvious when the leaders began their final rounds that daylight was going to be an issue.

• Why isn’t there some form of policy in place for such circumstances? It’s not like mid-afternoon starts, August weather delays and 8:42 p.m. sunsets are uncommon dynamics.

• The motive for such a decision was ridiculous. Is it more important to finish on Sunday night than to give those in contention an equal chance at victory? The tournament was not over. McIlroy led by two and came within two or three yards of driving his ball into the water at the 18th. We play 72 holes for a reason. You don’t hasten the finish or potentially affect the outcome because you have a 7 a.m. flight the next day.

Hey, a Sunday finish makes my life a lot easier, too. What I saw in the rush to beat total darkness was a case of mistaken priorities. It transmitted an amateurish vibe caused by poor communication and a lack of preparation. Other than that, I had no problem with it.

NOT TO KEEP ragging on my boys at the PGA of America or anything, but why is the deadline for U.S. Ryder Cup qualifying set seven weeks before the actual matches? I understand that the PGA Championship is the organization’s flagship event, but shutting down the points process after the year’s final major is an outdated concept – one of those little things that makes the American side more vulnerable than necessary.

“The [captain’s] picks are three weeks later,” an ex-skipper points out. “There’s no reason why the points can’t go three more weeks, but the truth is, the PGA wants to sell the event [more than] win it.”

Hmmm. Nothing like a little honesty with our faulty policy, but I also see this is as the PGA of America’s way of telling the PGA Tour that its playoff series matters not. The fact that all four premium-field events have little or no bearing on the U.S. team’s composition is so easy to fix, one can’t help but view it as intentional.

Don’t tell me about how it takes six weeks to fit everyone for proper rain gear or assemble the wives’ sweater collection. If the U.S. was winning this thing on a regular basis, the early deadline would be a moot point. But it isn’t. And it’s not.

AS SOME OF you know, I liked Fowler back when he was a one-victory underachiever with zero major presence and a lot of loud clothing. Some guys take longer to develop than others, I rationalized. Besides, I saw enough out of the kid to believe he’d become a top-tier player sooner rather than later.

I’m not sure he’s quite there yet, but Fowler’s performance at the big events this year is startling. He joins Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players in modern history to post top-five finishes at all four majors in a season. Both icons did it twice. Both featured a victory among their top-fives, so please, let’s not get carried away with the magnitude of Fowler’s accomplishment.

Progress? You betcha. “This is the first one that hurts,” he said after finishing two strokes adrift of McIlroy. A little pain can be a good thing, but here’s another number for you: Fowler’s top-fives at the majors are his only top-fives this season – I don’t count the Match Play because of the obvious difference in format.

So he still hasn’t won in almost 2 ½ years, yet Fowler finished second (just ahead of winless Jim Furyk) in the final U.S. Ryder Cup standings. I’m not sure how that sits with me, either, but let’s be honest. With Bubba Watson getting mad at everything and only four other Yanks in the top nine having won in 2014, Li’l Rickie might be America’s best player right now.

Boy, does this team need help.

As tight as I am with Fowler’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, getting details on what the two have been working on has been tougher than beating McIlroy. We’re left to analyze the numbers and draw some educated conclusions, which certainly tells us something.

• In the past, Fowler has killed his Sunday chances by hunting red-light pins and paying dearly for his misses. This year, however, he has become a boxer instead of a puncher, and his greens-in-regulation percentages are much better at the majors: 63.9 at the U.S. Open, 64.3 at the British Open, 66.7 at the PGA. My hunch? Butch has explained the math, so to speak. Wider targets + higher expectations = better scores.

• After a dreadful early-season stretch with the putter, Fowler has turned things around. He has gained more than a stroke per round on the field in each of his last four measured starts (the U.S. and British Opens don’t keep such a stat). When you’re hitting more greens and making more putts, well, the game becomes just a bit easier.

• He isn’t the world’s greatest driver of the ball, but as I’ve said in the past, Fowler is plenty long enough, and his ball flight off the tee doesn’t feature nearly as much right-to-left curve as it once did. That reduces the severity of his misses, which keeps him in more holes and allows him better chances to save par. At the major championships, few traits are more invaluable.

All that said, Fowler remains a work in progress, emphasis on moving forward. The gap between him and McIlroy isn’t all that large, but there is work to be done. A new era is squarely upon us. Put down the chisel, pick up the sizzle.