US PGA Championship - Murphy's Law: Rory racing past Tiger
Rory McIlroy's US PGA Championship win makes him a major player, while Tiger Woods has a major problem, says US golf expert Brian Murphy.
And now a word on the Rory-Tiger dynamic.
Or rather many words. We'll need them, since it's the topic going forward after Rory McIlroy laid waste to the record book again in winning his second Major at the tender age of 23, the youngest since Seve Ballesteros to win two Major titles.
This US PGA Championship victory – by eight strokes, the most in this Major's history – not only closed out the 2012 season for Majors and started the giant ticking clock to Augusta 2013, but also marked the official arrival of a Problem – with a capital ‘P' – for Tiger Woods.
It's bad enough that Woods's 2012 Majors season was pockmarked with weekend failure time and again. He knows he can whip the field, as he did by five shots at Bay Hill. He knows he can dig deep, as he did when he birdied three of the final four holes at the Memorial and when he held steady down the stretch at Congressional in July. But what he doesn't know – and hasn't known for four years now (14 Major starts) – is whether he can reignite the old Major championship magic that defined him from 1997 (his days of lanky, lean glow) through the early 2000s (his days of prime brilliance), through the mid-2000s (his days of mature and assured dominance).
Another weekend of contention, just like at Olympic and at Royal Lytham, another lost weekend of arrhythmic swings, sometimes-awful putting and utter inability to score. Tiger failed to break par on a weekend round at a Major this year for the first time in his career. That's not a blip. That's a trend, and it suggests an inability to play his best when he gets nearest the things he wants most.
And as he searches for that lost key, here comes Rory, blazing into the parking lot of golf greatness in a souped-up sports car, briefly laying rubber as he parks, then tossing his keys to the valet with a confident head nod.
Tiger's problems have now multiplied. It's like sitting at your table with your chequebook trying to figure out how you're going to pay your mortgage, then hearing your water heater in the basement hiss its disapproval.
Prior to US PGA Championship at Kiawah, one could have argued that Rory was the one in the midst of flailing. He was almost the last guy on Tiger's mind as Tiger tried to rescale Mount Major. McIlroy had followed up his record 2011 US Open victory with no top-20 finishes in his next five Majors. He even missed the cut at Olympic Club, part of a stretch where he missed four cuts in five starts, including three in a row in May.
This column spent plenty of time castigating McIlroy for failing to make good on his oceans of talent, for falling backward when he should have been surging. At times, I wondered if he had the fire to be an all-time great. At others, it was easy to wonder if his ongoing romance with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and its attendant travel to keep up with her schedule, wore him down. Even his countryman Graeme McDowell wondered as much.
Heading into Kiawah, Majors were won by Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els, marking 16 consecutive different winners at Majors. That's hardly the type of landscape Woods can't conquer.
But then came Kiawah, and it all clicked again for McIlroy: the ridiculously dialled golf swing, the total control of his golf ball and the putter. Oh, the putter. A student of Dave Stockton like so many others, McIlroy made his master's teaching look like the work of a flat-blade Yoda. Rory rolled it so beautifully, and so nerve-free – right down to his birdie on the 72nd hole that broke Jack Nicklaus's scoring margin record at the US PGA – that he looked like Tiger at his best. McIlroy later revealed he'd told his caddie he would win by eight to set the record, the admission of a man with zero fear on the golf course.
What this should make us realise is that patience and perspective win out over weekly knee-jerk reactions. It's hard for those of us in the media to counsel patience when our columns are due and we want to draw conclusions. The conclusion to draw for McIlroy seemed easy: After his US Open win, he was showing us – with his play and his behaviour – that he wasn't ready yet. He'd be a one-Major wonder for a while, and we'd keep observing this landscape of golf parity.
Then came Kiawah, and we step back and realise that this kid is 23 and has won two Majors at a younger age than Tiger. He's won two Majors in his last six starts. He's smashed records at both. It's hard to look at the long view when we watch golf weekly, but Kiawah reminded us the long view is what matters. And when that long view means McIlroy's name is now on a level with names like Nicklaus and Ballesteros and Woods in the history books, he's officially a force. Rory made sure to mention that he read and heard the criticism about his focus, and his love life, and said it motivated him, and that some in the press tent "pressed panic buttons" too early. Fair enough.
For Tiger, it's a problem. Even if he solves the issue with his putter's consistency – no sure bet as he ages – he will find himself likely tussling with a young man from Northern Ireland who is only gaining confidence and getting better. When Rory won at Congressional, a rehabilitating Tiger sent a congratulatory note through NBC that Dan Hicks read on the air, ending with the words: "Enjoy it."
At the time, the words seemed almost a challenge. As in, enjoy it, because I'm coming back and your enjoyment will end. And now, Rory's 67-66 weekend at Kiawah, a golf course buffeted by the winds of the Atlantic and fraught with peril, carries with it its own message: two Majors now, Tiger. I'm enjoying it.
It may be hard for Tiger to think about that in the long wait for Augusta.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
67-75-67-66 – 13-under 275, Rory McIlroy, winner, US PGA Championship, Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, S.C.
Even more thoughts about Rory McIlroy's big story: we must address the red shirt.
Those are some stones, wearing the red shirt on a Sunday at a Major when you're in the lead. Then again, maybe it's the kind of thing one does when one imagines the previous wearer of the red shirt no longer has magical powers.
Interestingly, McIlroy answered a question about the red shirt quite honestly. He said his sponsors sent it to him to wear Sunday, but said he would not have worn the shirt if he was paired with "him". And I think you all know who 'him' is," he said at the presser.
So, some reverence after all. Or, just some smarts. After all, said McIlroy, he remembered what happened when Luke Donald wore a red shirt in the final pairing with Tiger Woods, tied after 54 holes, at the 2006 US PGA Championship. Tiger shot 68, Luke shot 74. Red shirt not so cute, it turned out.
Intentional or not, Rory in red had the appearance of a man establishing his turf, marking his territory. Perhaps it lent enough power that it induced Jim Nantz to exclaim: "And there's a new ruler of the game of golf!" after McIlroy's last stroke.
He wasn't the only one so moved. John Cook is a longtime inner-circle F.O.T. (Friend of Tiger), but even he tweeted out about McIlroy: "#therealdeal. Length, distance control and a short game. Early TW."
Comparing him to your main man in his early days? With friends like that, who needs golf enemies? I kid, John. I kid. Sort of.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
Final round, US PGA Championship. Final group. Carl Pettersson – the stocky Swede-turned-Englishman-turned-American Southerner – is three strokes back of McIlroy, squarely in the hunt, and finds his golf ball in a water hazard on No. 1.
What's a stocky Swede-turned-Englishman-turned-American Southerner to do?
Why, call over a rules official, of course. Pettersson did so, and was informed that in Pete Dye's unusual layout, Pettersson would be allowed to touch the grass in the hazard with his club, provided he didn't ground it. Understanding of the ruling, Pettersson executed his golf shot – until a super slo-mo, intergalactic X-ray replay showed Pettersson somehow moved a small leaf in his backswing.
This, the rules say, is a violation. That's not the issue Pettersson was asking about, but it's a violation nonetheless. It's nothing that helped his golf ball's trajectory, but it's a violation nonetheless.
Never mind that Pettersson was so vigilant, he was asking the rules official about something entirely different. The rules busted him on a whole other issue. It's like reporting a bank error in your favour to the bank, and the bank thanks you, then docks you $50 for an obscure rule that says you're not supposed to talk to them on Tuesdays.
Poor Pettersson. Two-stroke penalty, chance at Major ended, and all because he dared ask for help in the first place.
Let's go back out to that first hole, remind Pettersson that the smallest of leaves can be the biggest of pains, remind him that Big Brother is watching and … give that Swede-turned-Englishman-turned-American Southerner a mulligan.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The FedEx Cup playoffs start a week from Thursday, so one last chance before they begin, and that's the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro. I miss the days it was called the Greater Greensboro Classic, because tournament monikers don't get much more old-school than that. Alas, capitalism reigns.
Your current US PGA champion will not be playing, nor will the guy who originally wore the red shirt on Sundays. Instead, it's sort of a hodgepodge of pre-FedEx Cup play-off names, like North Carolinian Webb Simpson, Ryder Cup captain and North Carolinian Davis Love III and Swede-turned-Englishman-turned-American Southerner Carl Pettersson. Somebody toss Pettersson a break if you see him this week. He deserves one.