In 1962, ’79, ’97 and now 2011, spaced almost evenly apart, four young golfers, all either 21 or 22, and all of them preceded by enormous reputations, won their first major championship. Their names are Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods and, now, after his 65-66-68-69 — 268 victory, Northern Ireland’s McIlroy.
That’s the whole list from the last 50 years of players with prodigious early gifts, monstrous expectations and an early-career triumph that identifies them unequivocally while putting a permanent spotlight around them for the rest of their lives. Woods was 21, the others 22. They are the prodigies around whom the future of the game revolves as soon as they validate their vast potential, as McIlroy has now done beyond any doubt.
The question about these fledgling one-name golfers — Jack, Seve, Tiger and now Rory — is not whether they will go on to further glory, but just how great they will ultimately become. Nicklaus broke every record. Woods still may. The late Ballesteros, limited by back problems, still won five majors and was the Arnie of European golf.
“I know how good Tiger was in 2000. . . . I was trying to emulate him in some ways,” said McIlroy, fully aware that he’d shattered Woods’s Open scoring record by four shots, though he did it on a far easier course than Pebble Beach in ’00.
“Everyone is going to draw comparisons. It’s natural,” McIlroy added. “I’m just happy to be sitting here with a trophy that has his name on it.” (Three times.)
All week, McIlroy has concealed the size of his ambition. Surely, no one wins an Open without astronomical aspirations. Finally, McIlroy gave hints. “I was quite annoyed by the bogey at 17,” he said. “Was he bogey-free at Pebble?” “He” would be Tiger.
“I’ve watched him for 15 years. I always had thoughts to beat Tiger in a Masters or U.S. Open. So, it would be great to go down the stretch with him,” McIlroy said. “Golf is a better place with him. . . . He does bring something extra. He’s Tiger Woods.”
Sounds like “Game on,” if Woods can get healthy and back to a semblance of form.
Many will compare this McIlroy victory with Woods’s 15-shot margin to win the ’00 U.S. Open. That’s not the best analogy. That Woods win was on a truly tough Open course with vicious rough; firm, fast greens; and ocean breezes. The next-best score was 3 over. McIlroy deserves every accolade he gets for 16 under. But McIlroy shooting zero at defenseless Congressional wasn’t as impressive as ’00.