BETHESDA, MD. -- In the sea of superlatives that surrounded Tiger Woods' 12-stroke victory in the 1997 Masters at the tender age of 21, one voice spoke with dispassionate yet disturbing calm. Earl Woods, the proud papa, took a long drag off his filtered cigarette and in a cloud of smoke said simply: "He's going to get better." As preposterous as the notion seemed at the time, it was true. The same words likely also apply now to Rory McIlroy. He's going to get better.
Of course Woods would get better; that Masters was only the first major championship he played as a professional. Never one to disagree with the man he called "Pop," three years later, Tiger authored one of the great years in the history of golf, winning three major championships, including the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight. With 71 career PGA Tour victories and 14 majors, Woods is in the discussion as the greatest ever even if he never strikes another ball in competition. He got better.
And there is no reason now to doubt that McIlory will continue to improve. In a startlingly short time, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, whose fresh face and wild curls make him look like the kid next door who cuts your grass, has emerged as a constant force in the majors, finishing in the top three in four of his last seven. Perhaps the best indicator of the upward arc on which McIlroy is riding is the fact that he followed his final-round collapse in the Masters with one of the most dominating performances in the history of the U.S. Open. Like Tiger, Rory has a sharp learning curve. The 80 he shot at Augusta National only made him stronger.
McIlroy showed no signs of a Masters hangover this week at Congressional CC. All he displayed was great golf and maturity to match. He not only pulled off all the shots he needed -- hitting 62 of 72 greens, not making a three-putt until the 71st hole and making only one bogey and a lone double bogey through the first 65 holes -- but he thought his way around the course masterfully. Unlike at Augusta, he never lost his composure.
"To get my first major out of the way so early in my career, especially with all that has happened the last couple of months, is really great," McIlroy said, the championship trophy sitting to his left. "Hopefully, there will be many more." And really, there is no reason right now to think there won't be the case.
The U.S. Open record book is now written in the green ink of Northern Ireland. McIlroy set scoring record for 36 holes, 54 holes and shattered the 72-hole record by four strokes for both relationship to par, 16 under, and total score with 268. He was so in control his eight-stroke margin over runner-up Jason Day felt like twice that. In fact, but for a few careless putts, he could have scored lower.
It was a Tiger-like performance. And now the comparison will begin, and while it may be a bit premature, it is not unfair. There are a lot of similarities between the two. And yes, McIlroy does now have 13 fewer majors than Woods, but Rory is also 13 years younger than Tiger.
Woods won his first major at 21; his second, the 1999 PGA Championship, at 23; and at the age of 24, had his record-setting 2000 season, becoming just the fifth player to complete the career Grand Slam. Through his first 10 majors as a professional, Woods had one victory. McIlroy now has one major through his first 10 tries as a pro.
And McIlroy has emerged already as a big-event player. Going into Congressional, he had finished third at the 2009 and '10 PGA Championship and at last year's British Open. Throw out the 80 in the final round at the Masters and the wind-blown 80 in the second round of the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews and McIlroy has played the last three majors at a stroke average of 67.82. Even with the two 80s included, he has averaged 69.43 for 16 rounds major championship rounds beginning with the 2010 British Open. Remarkable. Tiger-like.
There is a caveat to throw out, however, when discussing the scoring records set at this U.S. Open. Congressional did to the U.S. Open scoring records what steroids did to the home run record in baseball. At Pebble Beach, when Woods got to 12-under par, no one else was better than three over par. At Congressional, 20 players broke par on a course softened by rain and, inexplicably, set up extremely short on Saturday. The combined under par total of the last 10 U.S. Open winners is 16. That's also the combined under par score McIlroy shot this week.
There is another way in which McIlroy has something in common with the young Woods: The galleries were solidly behind him at Congressional, chanting "Let's Go Rory," and clapping rhythmically for him. Ironically, McIlroy really got on the radar screens of American fans with the classy way he handled his meltdown at the Masters. While Woods, abruptly and abrasively swatted away questions by CBS after his round, McIlroy took the time to try to explain what happened.
McIlroy has captured the hearts of the fans -- and of much of the media -- in a stronger way than Woods because while Tiger was often aloof, McIlroy lets people have a peek into what he is all about. As he sat at the table waiting to be interviewed, he took out his cell phone and snapped a picture of the trophy.
"I have to tweet it," he said with a smile. "I've waited all week to do this." Then he turned the camera at several hundred reporters and snapped a picture of them. It was difficult to imagine Woods doing either. In that way, McIlroy is already miles ahead of Woods. He has the charm and innocence of a kid. If that doesn't change, and the wins keep coming, the game of golf has found itself something very special.
-- Ron Sirak