Rory McIlroy’s star in a different stratosphere to everyone else’s

Tiger Woods ready for action at Valhalla following intense rehab on injured back

The convergence of a perfect storm came about yesterday in and about the car park of Valhalla Golf Club, as Rory McIlroy – with the Claret Jug in his hands – emerged from the clubhouse at the time that Tiger Woods drove into a reserved space that had been vacant for days.

The two most talked-about golfers on the planet, travelling in different directions, but their paths crossing. Perfect synergy, in truth. The past, the present and the future of the game!

That Woods made it to Valhalla was a feat in itself, given the obvious pain he was in when withdrawing from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational after eight holes of his final round on Sunday.

The diagnosis on Woods’s latest back injury was a pinched nerve, caused by the sacrum popping out of place, which was unrelated to the ailment which led to surgery back in March.


Woods, the last player to register, played the front nine and walked the back nine yesterday. “I played alright and I want to have a proper run at it,” said Woods, adding – with regard to the Ryder Cup – “I’ve a job to do, which is to win this thing.”

Two days of rehab on his injured back at home in Florida has, apparently, worked the oracle. To use an Americanism, Woods is good to go for this 96th staging of the US PGA Championship.

Except, he is demanding the focus for the wrong reasons; because of injury, and a curiosity about his ability to contend and, as a side show, to make the Ryder Cup team.

In contrast, the focus on McIlroy is, these days, for all the right reasons. It is about his golf, and his embracing of a winning habit that seems to have moved him beyond the reaches of all others. A bit like the Tiger of old, if the truth be told.

McIlroy, for sure, is the man to beat. In his past two tournaments, he has been mesmerising in a wire-to-wire win in the British Open at Hoylake and a charging final round in the Bridgestone.

‘Top of his game’

And, to a man, everyone it seems is putting the 25-year-old Northern Irishman as the target and one to beat.

"He's obviously on top of his game," observed Rickie Fowler, one of those left chasing his shadow at Hoylake. "I feel like he is driving it some of the best I've ever seen, not just for him, of anyone. That becomes a definite advantage. If he keeps doing that, he will be tough to beat."

Of all players, Sergio Garcia is the one who felt the force of the tornado which McIlroy is currently swirling through the tour. The Spaniard finished in a share of the runners-up position to McIlroy at Hoylake and gave up a three-stroke final-round advantage in losing out to him at Firestone.

What’s more, Garcia offered an intriguing insight in comparing the relevant merits of McIlroy and Woods when both at the top of their games.

“When they are both at their best, to me, it seems like Rory is less afraid of hitting driver. And when he’s hitting it as well as he’s hitting it now, he’s hitting it very far and quite straight . . . he’s a wonderful player.”

As if those remarks from his fellow peers weren't enough to digest as he sets about chasing down another Major title, Jack Nicklaus – the all-time record holder of Major titles with 18 on his CV – remarked yesterday: "I think Rory is an unbelievable talent. I love his swing. I love his rhythm. I love his moxie. He's got a little swagger there, it's a little bit cocky but not offensive. I like that. I like that self-confidence. He's got an unbelievable amount of speed in his golf swing."

Going further, Nicklaus added: “I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 of 20 Majors of whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing. But you just don’t know what the guy’s priorities are going to be in life 10 years from now.”

Note of caution

A note of caution, though, was added by Pádraig Harrington. Asked if he could go on to beat Nicklaus’s 18 or Woods’s 14 Majors, Harrington responded: “It takes a long time to win 18 Majors and some of Rory’s advantages could be eroded over the next couple of years given some of the kids now coming out of college who have a very similar game.

“So, it’s not like he is going to turn up to a tournament and have an almighty advantage over the field based on his driving. So, yes he can [catch Nicklaus and Woods], but he needs to get a hurry on.”

For now, McIlroy’s priorities are to keep on winning. He is in a zone of sorts, where he is comfortable going into battle and emerging as the kingpin.

Putting concern

It was after the Masters that he found the solution to a putting concern, a simple alignment matter. Since then, he has been wielding the blade like a magic wand.

McIlroy is chasing a fourth career Major, but the prospects of another Irish winner of a Major are bolstered by the presence in the field of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry, who both demonstrated their good form with top-10 finishes behind McIlroy in the British Open, and by Harrington and Darren Clarke.

And, yet, McIlroy, with the momentum of his British Open win, can’t expect to just walk out and claim another title. Majors aren’t like that, it isn’t that simple or straightforward.

All three Majors this season have been won by different players, Bubba Watson at the Masters and Martin Kaymer at the US Open. The only common trend has been that all three have three had previously won Majors.

On that score, Adam Scott – dethroned by McIlroy as world number one and a past US Masters champion – set out his stall and of those set to ensure that McIlroy doesn't have things all his own way. "Ultimately, it will come down to who makes the most putts," said Scott. It's as simple as that.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times