Woods and McIlroy at the Chevron World Challenge last year.
From the very beginning, Tiger Woods was almost too good to be true. He was a heroic figure larger than life; multi-ethnic in an overwhelmingly white sport; young, athletic, good-looking and cool in a game stereotyped as played by out-of-shape old men in bad pants; passionate in a fist-pumping way that defied tradition. And he won. Tiger was up there, the rest of us were down here, and that was exactly the way he wanted it. And then there is Rory McIlroy.
Watching Woods dominate a golf tournament, as he did at the Pebble Beach U.S. Open in 2000 when he went 12 under par and won by 15 strokes, was like watching a cartoon action figure come to life. He was a Transformer in cleats. Even the name -- Tiger Woods -- sounded as if it had been created by a Madison Avenue focus group. If the Manchurian Candidate played golf, he would be Woods: remote, aloof, determined and intimidatingly talented. And then there is Rory McIlroy.
Watching McIlroy dominate a tournament, as he did last week at Congressional CC in the U.S. Open, is like watching the kid who mows your lawn shoot 16 under and beat the best players in the world by eight strokes. The performance was remarkable, but the performer was accessible. He acknowledged cheers with a wave and a shy smile, curls of hair creeping out from under his hat. He responded to disappointing shots by sliding that cap over his face to hide his embarrassment. No curses. No club tosses. No caddie kicking cameras.
America fell in love with McIlroy at Augusta National GC when he took a four-stroke lead into the final round of the Masters and shot 80. To watch the then-21-year-old come apart -- a triple bogey on No. 10, a bogey on No. 11 and a four-putt double bogey on No. 12 -- tugged at even the hardest heart. Then the classy manner in which he answered every question afterward stood in sharp contrast to the rude way Woods dismissed an interviewer. People noticed.
Watching Woods, you want to bow down in awe, or cower in fear; watching McIlroy, you want to hug him, or give him a high-five. As McIlroy rolled to victory at Congressional, he picked up fans by the thousands. The young man from Northern Ireland was the clear crowd favorite in the shadows of the American capital, greeted by rhythmic chants of "Let's go, Rory" on every hole. He acknowledged those cheers both during and after the round.
"It feels like a home match," he said. "The support I got out there today was absolutely incredible, for a foreigner to come over and play in front of these U.S. crowds. I think every cloud has a silver lining, and I think what happened at Augusta was a great thing for me in terms of support." Yes, America learned a lot about McIlroy -- and Woods -- that Sunday at the Masters. One had been humbled by defeat, the other hadn't.
When it came time for McIlroy to face the media -- never one of Tiger's favorite chores -- that humility was captivating. With the trophy sitting next to him, Rory took out his cell phone and snapped a photo. "I have to tweet it," he said. "I've waited all week to do this." After the Masters, McIlroy tweeted a photo of him smiling next to Charl Schwartzel, who had on the green jacket Rory could have been wearing. It was a gracious gesture.
After taking his trophy shot Sunday, McIlroy turned his camera toward the hundreds of writers in the room and snapped a photo. In nearly 15 years as a pro, nothing close to that spontaneous ever occurred with Woods. Right now, Tiger has 14 majors and Rory has 13 fewer. But McIlroy is also 13 years younger and has connected with the public in a very special way.
If success doesn't consume that genuineness, and the victories keep coming, this is going to be a fun show to watch. As Dan Jenkins, who has covered more than 200 majors, said about McIlroy: "He has the repeating swing of [Ben] Hogan and [Byron] Nelson and the charisma of [Arnold] Palmer." If that doesn't change, the game of golf has found something special. And that is Rory McIlroy.