McIlroy – US Open (web site)
By Mike Blum
With Tiger Woods no longer Tiger Woods, front running fans and a superstar-craving media have been fervently awaiting the arrival of a new golf hero to take his seat on Tiger’s vacated throne.
After Rory McIlroy’s record-shattering performance in the recent U.S. Open, the successor to Tiger’s reign has apparently been identified.
Even before McIlroy had secured his first major championship title, he had been anointed as the game’s next dominant player. Those who watched McIlroy’s brilliant performance at Congressional could not help but compare it to that of Woods at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open, but the breathless attempts to stamp the young Irishman as the “next Tiger” are way premature.
At the ripe old age of 22, McIlroy is playing his fourth full season as a tour player and has amassed a total of three victories in his brief professional career, one in each of the last three years. He won in Dubai against a world class field before celebrating his 20th birthday and played one of the greatest final rounds in recent memory last year to score his first U.S. victory at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.
Prior to his eight-stroke victory in the 2011 U.S. Open, McIlroy was known as much for his two major championship meltdowns as he was for his two professional victories. His back nine collapse in the Masters 10 weeks prior to his U.S. Open triumph was fresh in everyone’s memory when McIlroy assumed early control at Congressional, but his showing at the 2010 British Open was also grist for the golf media mill.
McIlroy opened last year’s British Open at St. Andrews with a spectacular 63, but ballooned to an 80 the next day, with weather a mitigating factor. That knocked him out of contention, but he rebounded with scores of 69-68 on the weekend to tie for third, an early example of the resilience he has displayed since his train wreck at Augusta National in this year’s final round.
Leading by three after 54 holes in the Masters, McIlroy stumbled out of the blocks on Sunday, but quickly righted himself and still held a slim lead as he headed to Augusta National’s pressure cooker back nine.
One snipe hook and two holes that required seven painful-to-watch putting strokes later resulted in a triple bogey, a bogey and a double bogey, and McIlroy’s hopes of claiming a coveted green jacket were dashed. His closing 80 dropped him all the way to a tie for 15th, 10 strokes behind Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
McIlroy was hailed for the grace and forthrightness with which he dealt with his back nine collapse, the third time in less than a year that one of the game’s bright young stars had imploded after leading a major championship with 18 holes to play. McIlroy asserted that he would recover from his Sunday swoon in Augusta, and less than a week later was back in the lead in a European Tour event in Malaysia.
Although he ended up in third place, two strokes behind Italian teenager Matteo Manassero, McIlroy hung tough down the stretch and certainly appeared true to his declaration that he would be back on top again in the near future.
Not many anticipated the future would be so near. After missing the cut in his title defense in Charlotte, McIlroy turned in a solid fifth place finish in the Memorial two weeks before the Open. His name was not at the forefront of the list of favorites coming into the Open, but that quickly proved to be a glaring omission when he shot a 65 Thursday afternoon at Congressional to take a three-stroke lead after the opening round.
McIlroy’s lead reached six strokes after 36 holes following a 66 that could have been better if he had avoided the water with his approach shot to the par-4 18th. Having already shot 80 in the second and fourth rounds of two of the past three majors, the third round of the U.S. Open held some trepidation for McIlroy, but he answered any and all questions with a superb 68 as his lead reached a seemingly insurmountable eight strokes.
When McIlroy began the final round with a birdie on the first hole, any thoughts of another Sunday debacle were erased. All that was left to be determined was how many scoring records McIlroy would set and who would finish second behind him.
The latter honor belonged to fellow phenom Jason Day, who made it back-to-back runner-up finishes in majors with a final round 66, a distant eight strokes behind McIlroy, who set Open scoring records for 72 holes (268) and score in relation to par (16-under).
McIlroy’s victory was reminiscent of some of the dominant performances by Woods in his major runaways, but he needs to win a few more before he is tagged as a likely challenger to the career marks of Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
Clearly, McIlroy has the swing, the game and the temperament to assume Woods’ former stature as the best player in professional golf, but three total victories and one major in three-plus seasons as a pro do not guarantee a career to rival those of Woods and Nicklaus.
The potential is there, but after his exceptional performance at Congressional, the pressure on McIlroy to produce comparable results in the future will be considerable. He has proven he can come back from major disappointment, but maintaining the level of play he exhibited at Congressional is another thing entirely.
Winning just one major championship is a serious accomplishment, although there is a lengthy list of names from the recent past that appear out of place along side the likes of Fred Couples, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Tom Kite, Tom Lehman and Davis Love, all of whom captured just one major championship in their distinguished careers.
Since 2009, the last 10 major championships have been won by 10 different players, with 8 of them first-timers. The last five have been won by players age 30 or younger at the time, with McIlroy the youngest of the group.
McIlroy appears to be most likely of the current crop of standout 20-somethings to have a career that will place him among the game’s elite, but there is a whole lot that can short circuit that possibility. By all indications, McIlory has everything required to become golf’s next dominant performer, but the weight of expectations is among the most likely pitfalls that could keep that from happening.
Thanks to his magnificent showing in the U.S. Open, McIlroy will be under an even more revealing microscope at this month’s British Open, with relatively recent history not entirely in his favor. Europeans have won the last three majors and currently hold down the top four spots in the World Rankings, but those are extremely recent and potentially fleeting occurrences.
Prior to Padraig Harrington’s 2007-08 run of three victories in the span of five majors, Europeans had been almost invisible at the majors for a decade.
The European contingent led by Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer won more than half the Masters in the 1980s and ‘90s, but Jose Maria Olazabal’s 1999 victory is the last in Augusta by a European player.
Before Graeme McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open, the last Euro to win that event was Tony Jacklin in 1970. McIlroy’s win made it two in a row for Northern Ireland.
Until Harrington won back-to-back British Opens, the only European winner of that tour’s flagship event since 1992 was Paul Lawrie, the beneficiary of Jean van de Velde’s 72nd hole debacle at Carnoustie in ’99.
Euros have won two of the last three PGA Championships, which is two more than the continent’s total from 1931 to 2007. Harrington took care of the 75-plus-year drought and singlehandedly kept the post-Faldo-Ballesteros generation of European stars from suffering a career shutout in majors.
Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke are likely to retire without a major championship on their resume, and Lee Westwood is getting closer by the year despite repeatedly making serious runs at a title. Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald, the next group of Euro stars after Harrington and Westwood, are also o-fer in majors, with McDowell’s somewhat surprising win in last year’s U.S. Open starting the current Euro major run, interrupted only by South African Schwartzel.
With Woods on the DL and Phil Mickelson seemingly in post-40 decline, things have been bleak of late for the Americans, who have been blanked since Mickelson’s win at Augusta last year.
Since 2003, just three Americans not named Woods or Mickelson have won major championships – Zach Johnson in the 2007 Masters and back-to-back victories in the two Opens by Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink in ’08.
The British Open would seem an odd place for that trend to end, but a tournament that includes Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis and Lawrie among its past dozen winners is eminently capable of producing an unexpected winner.
Or solidifying the superstar status of a curly-haired 22-year-old from Holywood, Northern Ireland.