Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 4, 2012

Tiger Roars, Rory Answers

The good news for the many fans of Tiger Woods is that the red-shirted one gave every indication on Sunday that he has both finally mastered the reconstruction of his golf swing that has been a work in progress for more than 18 months and overcome the putting woes that have dogged him of late. Woods started the final round of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic at 2-under par, nine shots adrift of third round leader Rory McIlroy. Woods had played the Honda only once before, back before he turned professional. His presence helped boost ticket sales to this year’s event by more than 30%, and the massive galleries following him around the Champion Course at PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens were treated to some spectacular play.

Woods began his run on the 3rd hole, where after reaching the 538 yard par-5 in two he rolled in a lengthy putt for an eagle three. He followed that up with birdies on the 5th, 7th, and 11th holes to move to 5-under on his round, vaulting up the leader board. Then after five consecutive pars, in a move that was truly reminiscent of Tiger in his prime, he closed with a dramatic flourish. His iron on the par-3 17th hole finished hole high, some 25 feet left of the cup. With a sure putting stroke that has been missing of late, Woods drained the birdie putt in the center of the hole.

On the 18th he blasted a driver down the left side some 325 yards. The ball landed in but then bounced through a fairway bunker, finishing in the light rough just over 200 yards from the pin. The hole was cut on the far back right portion of the green, a tiny peninsula surrounded front, back and to the right by water. The smart play was to the center of the green, but Woods knew that at that moment he still trailed McIlroy by three strokes. Displaying the trademark daring and intensity that led him to dominate the game for more than a decade, Woods fired his iron directly at the flag. The ball just cleared the hazard, landing softly on the fringe and rolling to a stop 8 feet from the flag. When the ensuring eagle putt found the bottom of the cup, Tiger had fashioned a 2-3 finish and shot 62, the lowest final round of his professional career. He was 10-under for the tournament, and just one stroke off the lead.

The good news for golf fans everywhere is that in the 840 days since Woods last won a full-field event anywhere in the world, a new generation has risen to claim its place at the top of the game. Since Tiger lost his long stranglehold on the #1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, fellow Englishmen Lee Westwood and Luke Donald have both been ranked #1, as has German Martin Kaymer. Along with those three, Americans Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, and Hunter Mahan are all ranked in the top 12, as are Australia’s Jason Day and South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel. Of that entire group only Westwood is older than Woods and only he and Donald are in their thirties. Five of the last six major championships have been won by golfers in their twenties, a list that includes Kaymer and Schwartzel, as well as 25-year old American Keegan Bradley and 29-year old South African Louis Oosthuizen. But the unquestioned leader of this new generation is the youngest of them all, a wee lad from Northern Ireland who has carried the burden of great expectations from the moment he turned pro at the tender age of 17. The bad news for the many fans of Tiger Woods is that the golfer he was chasing on Sunday was none other than 22-year old Rory McIlroy.

Since Woods won the JBWere Masters in Australia in November, 2009, McIlroy has now won five times around the globe, including his dominating victory at last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional. It was that 8-shot victory at the first major championship after his final round collapse at the Masters that showed the world that McIlroy had not just the game, but the mental toughness to learn from and overcome his failures. On this Sunday, as Tiger’s eagle putt fell into the hole on the 18th and a mighty roar swept across the golf course, McIlroy was approaching the 13th green. He had just bogeyed the 12th hole to fall back to 11-under for the tournament and even for the day, but had struck a wedge from the 13th fairway to a spot some 8 feet past the hole. Golf fans have heard innumerable Tiger roars echo around many courses over the years; more times than one can count they have then watched as his competitors, less skilled and less focused, responded by wavering and ultimately collapsing. On Sunday McIlroy responded by calmly rolling in his birdie putt on the 13th to move back to minus-12 and reestablish his two-stroke lead.

With Luke Donald not playing at the Honda, this was the second week in which McIlroy could move from his #2 spot to the top of the rankings with a victory. He fell short of that goal last week at the Match Play when he lost to Mahan in the final, afterward admitting that he may have been thinking too much about the chance to become #1. At the Honda he remained solidly in the moment; with an intense focus down the stretch every bit as great as anything ever demonstrated by you know who. Right of the green at the par-4 14th, his ball invisible in deep rough, he executed a perfect flop shot to leave a short putt for par. Bunkered at both the 15th and 17th, he played textbook sand shots to record two more par saves. With a two-stroke lead at the last, he hit driver to the center of the fairway, mid-iron to the ideal layup position, wedge to the center of the green, then lagged his first putt up near the hole. When the final four footer for par fell in, McIlroy finished a tournament in which he led the field in scrambling and a round in which he missed not a single putt inside of ten feet.

Two months short of his 23rd birthday, McIlroy becomes the second youngest player ever to be ranked #1, behind only Woods. I’ve written numerous times in this space that I expect Tiger both to win tournaments again and to win more majors. His performance on Sunday only reinforced that belief. But he will do so in an era that will no longer be his. Golf’s next generation has fully arrived, led by an open, engaging, and enormously talented young superstar from a little town in County Down. On Sunday the golfer nicknamed Rors heard Tiger’s roar and never blinked; and so he now spends his first week as #1. Over the next dozen or more years, it should certainly be but the first of very, very many.

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Responses

  1. […] him play, and the world of golf has his invitation back signed, sealed and ready to be opened. Ticket sales increased by 30% after Woods confirmed his presence at the Honda Classic and lauds of fans loyally marched him round […]


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