• Golf

McIlroy an obstacle in Tiger's path

July 22, 2014
Rory McIlroy has won an Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and collected three legs of a career Slam before turning 26 - just like Tiger Woods. © PA Photos

For 72 holes at the Open Championship, Rory McIlroy was exactly what Tiger Woods was not: confident, fearless and in full control of his golf swing.

Every time the 25-year-old Northern Irishman bombed his red Nike driver down the middle of Royal Liverpool's fairways on the way to his third major title, it was an easy reminder of Tiger's failure to adequately hit his own red Nike driver.

Each view of the iconic swoosh on McIlroy's chest was a reminder of the man who has become synonymous with that logo in the world of golf.

With his victory at Hoylake, McIlroy joined Jack Nicklaus and Woods as the only players to have won three majors by the age of 25.

Tiger has had to live with constant references to Nicklaus, but he never played with his idol regularly on tour. By the time Tiger came to prominence as a pro in the late 1990s, Nicklaus was close to 60 years old and not a full-time player.

In many ways, Nicklaus, to Tiger, represents mostly a statistic - 18 major championships, the game's most treasured record.

Now in order for Tiger to break Nicklaus' record, he will likely have to beat McIlroy.

That Tiger and Rory are going in different directions in their respective careers was painfully obvious at Hoylake.

By the time McIlroy raised the Claret Jug on Sunday evening, Woods was long gone from the grounds of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club.

After an opening-round three-under 69 on Thursday, Tiger went nine over in his remaining three rounds to claim 69th place, his worst finish in a major as a professional.

On Sunday evening, discussion arose around the 2015 Masters, when McIlroy will have his first opportunity to complete the career Grand Slam. Finally clearheaded about his personal and professional life, after making some hard decisions over the past couple of years, McIlroy is ready to take on the world.

"I've really found my passion again for golf," McIlroy said. "Not that it ever dwindled, but it's what I think about when I get up in the morning. It's what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer that I can be.

"And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability."

Meanwhile, Tiger reminded the world on Sunday of his back surgery in late March that kept him out of competition for more than three months.

"I'm still building," he said. "I'm still working on my game. And I'm still getting stronger and faster."

Now, the 14-time major champion faces the prospect of not making the FedEx Cup play-offs, which he has twice won, and the US Ryder Cup team, which he has been a member of seven times.

Tom Watson, the US Ryder Cup team captain, will be faced with a very hard decision about granting one of his captain's picks to Tiger if he can't even qualify for the play-offs.

In the meantime, McIlroy will be a favorite to win the FedEx Cup play-offs and lead the European Ryder Cup team to its third consecutive victory in the biennial matches.

Tiger is not done as a contender to win major championships, yet it's been more than six years since he won his most recent one. And with his need for perfection, he is seemingly always in swing turmoil, which doesn't make him trustworthy down the stretch in tournaments, particularly now that he no longer makes all those clutch putts and short-game shots that often separated him from the field. If Tiger plays poorly next month at Valhalla in the PGA Championship, this could be the first year in his pro career in which he doesn't have a top-10 finish in a major.

Woods and McIlroy are arguably the two most prominent names in the game. And in the next few years, on their divergent paths, they could have a significant impact on the sport. If Tiger gradually fades as a regular presence on major championship leaderboards, golf needs a consistent star to galvanize widespread interest in the game. McIlroy has the big-time game, warm personality and modest upbringing that makes you want to root for him and the sport.

Still, the game needs both Tiger and McIlroy to succeed. Even as their careers appear to be heading in different directions, it's possible that they will meet somewhere in the near future with an important tournament on the line.

At Hoylake, their paths didn't cross, but it's not too late for them to form a meaningful rivalry. Tiger has a chance to be more than just a mentor and barometer of greatness for McIlroy, whose game he assessed on Sunday afternoon.

"When [Rory] gets it going, he gets it going," Tiger said. "When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It's one or the other. If you look at his results, he's kind of that way. Very similar to what Phil [Mickelson] does.

"He has his hot weeks and he has his weeks where he's off. And that's just the nature of how he plays the game. It's no right way or wrong way. But it's just the nature of how he plays."

Tiger is wise in the ways of golf, but he has had his own issues with consistency that have plagued him since he last won a major in 2008 at Torrey Pines in the US Open. He now looks back to those 14 majors for sustenance and confidence for the tough journey ahead as a player nearing 40 in a game that's increasingly becoming dominated by ambitious 20-somethings.

On Sunday, McIlroy was looking ahead to the Masters in April.

"Even though there's still one major left this year that I want to desperately try and win, I'm looking forward to next April and trying to complete the career Grand Slam," he said.

Tiger can't see that far out into next spring. He wants simply to stay healthy and get competitive again. His journey back to greatness will likely lead him to McIlroy, who is blazing a new trail in the sport.

This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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