Rory McIlroy went to great lengths on Tuesday to wiggle his way around a press conference question that centered on whether or not he was ready to embrace “the Rory era”.
Too bad he didn’t want to talk about it, because it’s the only thing worth discussing this week.
Whether or not McIlroy is ready, he’s in prime position to officially take over as the first true dominant player since Tiger Woods stepped onto the scene in 1996 and changed golf in America.
All he has to do now…to borrow a phrase he’s familiar with given his $250 million dollar endorsement deal — is just do it.
The stage is set for McIlroy to roar through the field at this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla GC in Louisville. He’s coming off of two incredibly impressive performances against stellar fields, winning the British Open three weeks ago and last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. It’s been a long time since a player other than Tiger Woods was an absolute prohibitive favorite to capture a major championship like McIlroy — at odds of 5 to 1 — is this week at Valhalla.
It’s his tournament to lose.
That’s how much of a favorite he is this week.
Wet weather in Louisville over the last nine days has left Valhalla soft and ultra-playable. This favors McIlroy even more — as if he needed a helping hand. He’s driving the ball further and straighter, in combination, than anyone on the planet. He’s a “picker” of the ball, which means he doesn’t impart as much spin with his irons, giving him the ability to zero in on yardages on a soft course that others might find troubling if they spin their irons on approach shots. Oh, and he has more confidence than anyone in the game of golf right now.
That’s a winning formula.
Now, though, we’ll see if McIlroy has what it takes to truly go to a new level in golf. We’ll see if he actually wants to have his own era, a spotlight-gathering environment that includes PRESSURE to win, not expectations of contending for a win. It’s a scenario that just doesn’t play out often in golf because it’s incredibly difficult to win week in and week out.
No one other than Woods has dominated golf since 1996. From the time he turned pro until Y.E. Yang bested him on the back nine of the 2009 PGA Championship, Tiger essentially won 14 major titles because he was better than everyone else and he — and the rest of the players — knew that as fact.
Tiger was the favorite to win every time he teed it up. He made good on those odds more than anyone else during “his era”.
Can McIlroy follow in those footsteps now that he’s seemingly on the verge of entering the elusive zone where everyone knows if he plays his best, he’s winning?
It takes a special player to pull off that sort of mystique, run with it, and capitalize on it by actually fulfilling all of that promise.
McIlroy has the ability to dominate right now. In many ways, his golf swing — today — is better than Tiger’s ever was, even in his true hey-day when TW won just by showing up. Rory will never be the putter that Tiger was from ’96 through ’09, but that doesn’t mean he’s a putting stiff, either.
He can do it all, McIlroy can.
This limelight, though, where every question posed to you somehow gets back to the fact that you’re supposed to win, is something no player but Woods has dealt with over the last twenty years. By default, it’s fallen on McIlroy’s shoulders, because no one else was able to go head-to-head with Tiger when he was lapping the field year after year, money title after money title.
Mickelson, for as great as he’s been, was never a threat to Tiger when Woods was really at the top of his game, mainly from 2000 through 2006. Vijay Singh? A piano mover, not a piano player. Same with Ernie Els. Those guys have enjoyed tremendous careers but at no time did they go month-to-month as “the player to beat” when the major events rolled around. None of the terrific European players have been worth a hoot during the “Tiger era”. The one with the most majors, Padraig Harrington (3), is by far the least talented of the bunch that includes guys like Westwood, (zero major titles), Garcia (zero), Poulter (zero), Stenson (zero), and Donald (zero).
McIlroy is truly in a position no other player has occupied, other than Woods, since 1996.
It’s a massive undertaking to rise to the top of the golfing world and stay there. You have to want it. You have to also not want it badly enough that it stops you from performing. You have to know how to win. But you also have to allow winning to happen.
Woods was a golfing virtuoso for over a decade. He knew when to push, he knew when to ease off, he knew when to drive the stake in everyone’s heart, and he knew how to power his way through summers of golf like no one has since he arrived on the scene.
Rory McIlroy is in position to do that now.
No one is close to him, talent wise. The young crop of American players, headlined by Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth, have plenty of skill to compete with themselves but not nearly enough to overcome McIlroy if he’s hitting on all cylinders.
Golf these days isn’t nearly the same without Woods in the fray because no one out there has been good enough to rise to a level worthy of comparison to Tiger.
Now, though…this week at Valhalla, there’s truly a story worth watching.
Ernie Els has spent nearly 20 years on TOUR, scratching and fighting like a mad man to proudly win four major titles.
Rory McIlroy could win his fourth this week. At age 25. Only one other guy has done that since 1996…and you know who that is, of course.
And if he does win the PGA, the Rory era, whether he likes it or not, is officially in session.