The Masters

Great Expectations

The emergence of Rory McIlroy and the return to form of Tiger Woods raise hopes for an epic rivalry--a wish that may be ambitious

April 2, 2012

"You could make the argument that he might be Tiger's Watson."
--Sean Foley on Rory McIlroy

You absolutely could. And so it might prove to be. But, the thing is, titans don't exactly grow on trees and, worse yet, one of ours evokes Achilles.

That, by the way, will be the first and last Greek punch line here because the Greeks haven't been funny since Aristophanes and there's absolutely nothing amusing about Tiger Woods' left leg, which might yet turn out to be as delicate as a tulip stem. There are two things that must happen for McIlroy vs. Woods to mature into the next big thing, and they're as easy to read as a Masters leader board. McIlroy must become more than just a passing occupant of the No. 1 spot on the World Ranking. He has to continue to grow into the force majeure everyone has believed he would be since he was a boy pitching golf balls into a Hoover washing machine. And Woods, of course, must become a reasonable facsimile of himself.

And neither is a mortal lock, in spite of the promising early Florida returns, which could always wind up being the hanging chads of hope.

It is precisely because golf's truly historic rivalries are so rare--and so compellingly beautiful when they come into full bloom--that we mine for them in every piece of promising clay. The starker reality is, Tiger Woods could no more afford to overlook Bob May or Rocco Mediate than Jack Nicklaus could Doug Sanders or Isao Aoki. As Mike Smith, the jockey who comes from the same little New Mexico town, Roswell, as Nancy Lopez, put it, "Who's the horse to beat? I've got to beat them all." There are plenty of onesies and twosies--not to relegate them to the status of seat-savers at the Oscars--who earned the right to occupy the lines on golf's most famous pieces of silver between The Others. Jones and Hagen and Sarazen. Snead and Hogan and Nelson. Palmer and Player and Nicklaus. Among those great rivals, the head-to-head duels were relatively few in number but enduring in memory. It was never about beating just one guy, right up to the moment when it was.

"We talk too much about potential rather than performance. Results, they are what matter," says Tom Watson, looking relaxed in his Kansas City office wearing blue jeans and a Royals hat, back from two months of pausing to smell the roses--well, the sulphurous lava anyway--on the Big Island in Hawaii. "The more you win, the more you get notched up on that perch. This guy's good. This guy's really good. This guy's great," he says, walking you up the ladder with slashing hand gestures. "It takes a while to get up to that great notch. There have been a lot of near-greats and been a lot of could-be greats, but the people who got to be great are very few and far between."

tiger woods and rory mcilroy at the masters

Georgia on their minds: Woods (left, reacting to a Sunday eagle on No. 8) and McIlroy (right, on Friday), were part of the 2011 Masters plot.

McIlroy, just 22, might become one. Woods, at 36, already has been and might be yet again. The potential for the two to produce a historic pas de deux seems uncannily similar to 35 years ago. On the final day of a 1977 Masters that would become the precursor to their seminal duel in the British Open at Turnberry, one sure thing and one wannabe began what is--with a tip of the cap to Nick Faldo and Greg Norman--golf's last great rivalry, one that ran its course all the way to Pebble Beach five years later. Writing in Sports Illustrated, Dan Jenkins described their buddy trip to Scotland this way: " ... Nicklaus looked off in thought with something of the expression of an aging gunfighter. He did not say he had been expecting someone to come along one of these years. But the look seemed to indicate that he had finally met him."

Could that same faraway look have passed across Woods' face last June with his ankle in a boot and the U.S. Open on the flat-screen TV? We might yet find out in Augusta. Woods, the winner of 14 majors, is a year younger than Nicklaus was in 1977 when Watson's birdie on Augusta National's 17th backed the then-14-time major champion off his approach into the 18th and coaxed him into a mental mistake, forcing Jack to play for a 3 instead of a comfortable 4 with the chance for 3, a decision that resulted in a fat iron shot into a greenside bunker and a bogey. Nicklaus had blinked, perhaps not for the first time but certainly one of the very few. "I've kicked myself ever since for doing that stupid thing," Nicklaus says.

The young Watson, 27 then, was much older chronologically than McIlroy is now and certainly not the sort to be breezily enticed out of the stands at a tennis match to bat the ball around with a tall, good-looking Russian blonde. Competitively, however, they would seem far closer in age. The kid with the redheaded mop from the Midwest had been on tour five years in 1977 and was a notorious punisher of range balls, while the kid with the dark-haired mop from Northern Ireland is in his fifth year as a professional and showed up for the new season with a new body. They each sought the wisdom of elders, Watson at the foot of Byron Nelson, McIlroy from Nicklaus. They each had a résumé that included major collapse and, in the case of both, a major success--Watson's playoff victory in the 1975 British Open and McIlroy's walk-off win at Congressional CC last June.

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