DORAL, Fla. – Even more amazing than his historic 16-under total at last year’s U.S. Open, and even more amazing than his resilience following his Masters meltdown, was Rory McIlroy’s unruffled tranquility amid the Congressional chaos as championship Sunday turned to dusk last June.
At 22 years young the Ulsterman was just minutes removed from his first major championship and, truth be told, the calmest head in the interview room when asked how comparisons to the game’s greatest players impacted him.
“I don't think you can think about it. It's only people saying these things. It's nice that people say that he could be this or he could be that or he could win 20 major championships, but at the end of the day I've won one,” McIlroy reasoned.
In short, even the newly crowned heir apparent knew the last 17 majors are the hardest.
It was with equal aplomb that McIlroy negotiated the lofty ground where he now finds himself on Tuesday at Doral. As the world’s top-ranked player and, perhaps more importantly to some, the most recent player to withstand a Sunday charge from Tiger Woods, McIlroy sidestepped any question about a budding rivalry with the game’s former alpha male with similar ease.
“It’s the media that are building up the rivalry more than anyone else,” said McIlroy, who set the stage for the rivalry buzz with his two-stroke victory over Woods on Sunday at PGA National. “You have a rivalry if you want but at the end of the day your real rival is the golf course.”
Or the history book, depending on one’s perspective.
For more than a decade - with apologies to Phil Mickelson - Woods’ only real rival was the game’s ghosts – benchmarks set by the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Neither McIlroy’s Honda victory nor Woods’ closing 62, his lowest Tour round since the 2009 BMW Championship, have changed that reality.
Nicklaus’ 18 major championships are still the carrots for Woods, but McIlory’s climb to the top of the world’s heap has added an inescapable level of intrigue.
McIlroy has never seen Woods at his best, but he caught a glimpse of what could be in the rearview mirror on Sunday at the Honda Classic. And like all images in the rearview, objects are closer than they appear.
There have been no shortage of rivals for Woods over the years and, with the exception of Mickelson, none had staying power and went the way of the Dodo bird, or Sergio Garcia, pick your own metaphor.
Truth is real rivalries are hard to come by, needing the perfect cocktail of karma and capable contenders.
“I don't think we've had many rivalries in this game. You know, we had kind of Jack and Arnie back in the day, but I think rivalries, there's so many good players nowadays,” said Hunter Mahan, who beat McIlroy in the final match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
“Tiger doesn't have a rival. Just look at the record. I mean, there is none. His rival is Jack Nicklaus. It's hard to put anyone up there right now with him. I understand his last few years haven't been his best and everything that's going on, but that guy, he's had numbers that no one has even thought about reaching.”
McIlroy has the tools – swing, style, media savvy – to make a game of it, but this match will be determined by history, not a harried news cycle. Whether McIlroy-Woods evolves into the head-to-head everyone envisions is years, maybe decades, away.
Yet that reality will do little to stop some from considering the possibilities. Even the young Northern Irishman was not immune to the dynamics of shifting dynasties on Sunday at the Honda Classic.
“To be honest, I was probably thinking to myself, could it not just have been anyone else,” McIlroy said of Woods’ Sunday charge. “It definitely made Sunday a little more difficult or a little more interesting.
“I can’t sit here and lie and say that it didn't feel better to have Tiger post a score and to be able to play solid; it maybe made it feel a little sweeter than if it had of been someone else.”
No, Rory-Tiger is not a rivalry, at least not yet, but there are plenty, even the coolest head in the game, who can’t help but imagine the possibilities.