In the four-month gap between World Golf Championship events, Tiger Woods has played six competitive rounds to Rory McIlroy's 38.
After winning the British Open, McIlroy dived back into training last week after the briefest of celebrations.
Woods, who finished 68 spots behind McIlroy in his second start since returning from back surgery, spent the week with his two young children, scheduling his practices around family putt-putt matches.
Woods, the defending champion at the Bridgestone Invitational and an eight-time winner at Firestone Country Club, is no less serious about his career than McIlroy, but there is a generational divide.
At 38, Woods is trying to further his golf legacy while his life legacies, daughter Sam, 7, and son Charlie, 5, develop like a Polaroid photograph before his eyes. He has only so much time to watch them grow, and Woods is dedicated to being a stalwart presence in their lives.
“You make that decision to have kids and bring them into the world, and that’s my No. 1 priority. After that, then it would be my game.”
At 25, McIlroy wakes up every morning thinking about what he needs to do before his day is done to improve as a player.
Since he broke off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki in May, McIlroy's life has basically been all golf, all the time, the same as when he was a child. "That's the place that I'm in right now," McIlroy said, "and that's my main objective and my main focus."
Watching both players from his perch as the sport's elder statesman is Jack Nicklaus, who completes the circle of golf. Nicklaus, a 74-year-old native Ohioan, knows the exaltation of winning three majors before the age of 26, as McIlroy and Woods have done.
He also knows how hard it is to pull off the juggling act of parenthood and high-performance golf.
With five children and 18 major titles, Nicklaus forged a legacy that no one has surpassed. Woods has been stuck at 14 major victories since 2008, the year before his son’s birth.
Given McIlroy's start, might he eventually pass both men? In a recent teleconference with reporters in the lead-up to next week's PGA Championship, Nicklaus said he thought it might depend on McIlroy's "desire and focus and what he wants to accomplish in his life."
After deciding that they want to be good players, many professional golfers “have some financial success, and they decide that they want to live a normal life rather than totally dedicate it to golf and to their sport,” Nicklaus said.
“There are other athletes who decide that records are important to them and it’s important for them to leave a legacy as the best player of their time,” he said, “and that’s fine, too.”
So what does McIlroy want to accomplish? “I didn’t grow up wanting to lead a normal life; I grew up wanting to win major championships,” McIlroy said. He added, “I just want to live my life the way I want to live it, and at the same time, I feel like I can still be dedicated enough and driven enough to try to become the best player I can be.”
Notice that McIlroy did not say he wanted to try to become the best player ever. As Woods committed Nicklaus' milestones to memory, so did McIlroy, as a youngster in Northern Ireland, use Woods' achievements as a yardstick.
Having spent more than half his life studying Woods’ very public pursuit of Nicklaus’ record, McIlroy joined the race armed with a different strategy than Woods.
“I know how many majors the greats of the game have won,” McIlroy said. “But I never wanted to compare myself, because if I go on to win whatever number it is, then that’s great. At least at the end of my career there’s not going to be a disappointment: ‘Oh, I wanted to get to 15, but I only got 12 - bummer.’ You still got 12 majors, you know what I mean?”
Nicklaus did not set out with any target total. He said: “I never worried about how many I had won. That was not important to me. What was important to me was that I played the game well and played the game in the right way, and that I left a legacy that I was proud of.
“So all of a sudden, when Tiger comes along and he starts winning major championships, all of a sudden that becomes a focus, and all of a sudden my 18 number became a focus of different proportions.”
Could Nicklaus have won more majors if he had put off fatherhood to stalk them as hungrily as Woods did throughout his 20s and into his 30s? “If I had set out when I was a kid, say in my mid-20s or early 30s, and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to win as many majors as I can possibly win,’ if I would have said that, I probably could have won more,” Nicklaus said.
“That was not what was important to me. Far more important to me was my family and being able to know my kids, know my kids as they grew up.”
He added, “I wouldn’t trade that for another two or three majors.” Four months removed from back surgery and five months shy of his 39th birthday, Woods is thinking about his legacy.
Nicklaus’ record, Woods said, has not become less important to him, but he acknowledged, “These 14 weren’t easy.” Woods added: “I’ve passed a lot of people on the way to get to this point. You look at the who’s who and the history of the game and the fact there’s only one person ahead of me, it’s not too bad.”
New York Times