Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 12, 2012

Rory Roars Again, As Tiger’s Major Fade Continues

After two rounds of the PGA Championship last Friday, Tiger Woods was at four under par, tied for the lead with Carl Pettersson and Vijay Singh. Friday’s second round at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island was played in brutal conditions, the wind gusting to as much as 30 miles per hour. On a day that saw notables like Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan all card scores of 80 or worse, Tiger’s round of 71, in which he needed just 26 putts, was bettered only by Singh’s remarkable 69.

With that knowledge alone, no golf fan would be surprised to learn that on Sunday afternoon, a golfer in a red shirt would scorch the field with a record-setting performance, winning another major championship. Except of course with that knowledge alone, a golf fan would have missed another pedestrian weekend at a major by Woods, because the golfer in the red shirt whose two-syllable first name was being chanted by the fans over the final few holes wasn’t Tiger, but 23-year old Rory McIlroy.

With rounds of 67-75-67-66, McIlroy posted 13-under par, eight strokes better than Englishman David Lynn. That broke the record for the largest margin of victory at the PGA, besting the mark of seven set by Jack Nicklaus in 1980. At 23 years and 3 months, he becomes the youngest winner of the year’s last major since it went to a stroke play format in 1957, and he wins his second major at four months younger than Woods was when he won the second of his fourteen at the 1999 PGA. McIlroy also moves back atop the Official World Golf Rankings for the fourth time this year, and with his second major in fourteen months ends the streak of a different golfer winning each successive major at sixteen.

Woods meanwhile once again moved backwards on the weekend at a major. He made three early bogeys in Saturday’s third round, in which he and Singh managed to play just seven holes before play was suspended by thunderstorms. He was able to reclaim only one of those strokes when the field went out early Sunday morning to finish third round play, eventually carding a 74. Then his final 18 turned to dust on the back nine when he made bogey-6 on both of the two par-5’s. When he missed a final birdie putt on the home hole and settled for a tap-in for an even par 72, Woods had completed this year’s four majors by failing to record a single weekend round under par.

With three victories in other PGA Tour events this year, there is no doubt that Woods has completed the task of redesigning his golf swing for the third time in his career, and that he is once again one of the best players on the planet. The three victories make him the favorite for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors. But his failure to perform in the crucial rounds of the four tournaments that he measures himself by is a stark reminder that men’s professional golf has moved on to a new era.

It is often hard in the moment to identify an event that marks a fundamental turning of the page in the history of any sport. Such moments generally become clear only with the advantage of hindsight and a bit of perspective. When the band of severe weather moved up the South Carolina coast Saturday afternoon and suspended third round play even as Woods was moving backwards and McIlroy had surged into a tie for the lead, CBS did what networks usually do in that situation. They started showing videotape of a previous year’s tournament. But in doing so and with our collective knowledge of what has happened since, we can now see that the network was actually bringing us vivid images of the day things changed forever with Tiger Woods at the majors.

While providing regular updates on the stoppage of play, including pictures of water rising on the Ocean Course’s 18th green, CBS spent the better part of ninety minutes showing final round play from the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club outside Minneapolis. The choice of that particular edition of the tournament was no doubt driven by the fact that it was the last time Woods contended at the PGA. The best way to keep casual fans from changing the channel over to the Olympics was certainly to roll archival footage that featured lots of shots of Tiger. But that major was also the one at which a remarkable run by the best golfer of his era, and perhaps of all time, came to a stop. Prior to Hazeltine, Tiger Woods had held or shared the lead after three rounds of a major fourteen times; and fourteen times he had gone on to claim victory.

On Sunday August 16, 2009, Woods went to the first tee with a two shot lead over playing partner Y.E. Yang of South Korea. But Woods struggled with his putting through much of the round, and by the time the two came to the short par-4 14th hole, they were tied at 6-under par. Woods was on the green in birdie range, watching as Yang, who had driven just short of the green, prepared to chip. Then the journeyman South Korean, who had won the Honda Classic earlier that year for his only PGA Tour victory, lofted the ball from an uphill lie beside the green. It rolled across the putting surface and fell into the heart of the cup for an eagle-2 and the lead. Those were the days when Woods could be counted on to hole every crucial putt, so of course his birdie effort was good. But he still trailed by one, and then over Hazeltine’s closing holes, something remarkable happened. Yang showed no evidence of being intimidated or awed by Woods, instead matching him shot for shot. Then at the last, still leading by one after both made pars on the 15th and 16th and matched bogeys on the par-3 17th, Yang simply outplayed Woods at the tournament’s most crucial moment. From 210 yards in light rough Yang carved a hybrid club around a tree and onto the green, eight feet from the hole. Meanwhile from a clean lie in the fairway Woods blew an iron over the green. When Woods subsequently made bogey and Yang sank his birdie putt, Tiger’s grip on his fifteenth major had been lost and his long run of Sunday dominance after putting himself in position to win had ended.

It’s now three full years later, and Woods hasn’t had a chance to start a new streak, because he hasn’t teed it up on a Sunday at a major with the lead. This year he shared the midpoint lead at both the U.S. Open and the PGA, and quickly lost strokes in the early part of each tournament’s third round. Meanwhile the young man with the thicket of hair from County Down has started to fulfill his remarkable promise. Lost in the shock of Yang beating Woods was then 20-year old Rory McIlroy’s third place finish at the 20009 PGA in his first appearance in the championship.

Now over the last eight majors McIlroy has gone to the first tee on Sunday with the lead three times. The first time, at last year’s Masters, disaster awaited. But McIlroy’s remarkable grace and humor after his final round 80 won him a legion of fans, and his performances since show he learned valuable lessons that hard day at Augusta National. At the 2011 U.S. Open at rain-softened Congressional Country Club, he led from start to finish, setting the tournament record for low aggregate score of 268 and lowest score relative to par at 16-under while winning by eight. This Sunday, he dominated both the course and the field with his final round 66, during which he required only 24 putts; his three stroke margin at the start of the round ballooning to eight by the finish.

I still believe that Tiger will again hoist a major trophy, though his zero for 2012 performance has considerably lengthened the odds of him eventually topping Nicklaus for the most career major wins. Meanwhile we are still close enough to the period of his dominance that performances like McIlroy’s at the Ocean Course are called “Tiger-like.” But the two-time major champion from Northern Ireland is still only 23, and his two major wins have both been historic. One can’t help but believe that soon enough, when he once again does what he did last year at Congressional or this Sunday at the Ocean Course, the commentators will finally acknowledge that it’s just Rory being Rory.

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