KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The comparisons are inevitable. The incredible skill, the youth, even the red shirt on Sunday.
Rory McIlroy’s dominant performance in winning the PGA Championship this weekend looked a lot like the early days of Tiger Woods.
Woods saw it coming more than three years ago. McIlroy made his professional debut in America at age 19 and reached the quarterfinals of the Match Play Championship. Woods saw how he drove the ball, the putts he made, the efficient short game and the composure.
“He has all of the components to be the best player in the world, there’s no doubt,” Woods said back in March 2009. “It’s just a matter of time and experience, and then basically gaining that experience in big events. Just give him some time, and I’m sure he’ll be there.”
McIlroy didn’t need much time at all.
The 23-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland now has won both his majors, the U.S. Open last year and this weekend’s PGA Championship, by eight shots. There have been only five majors won by eight shots or more since 1976 — three by Woods, two by McIlroy.
McIlroy also won his two majors at a slightly younger age than Woods, though that is a little misleading because he turned pro earlier. The PGA Championship was McIlroy’s 16th major as a pro. Woods won his second major in his 12th try.
But it was the way McIlroy won at Kiawah Island that allowed for the comparisons. After rain forced play to be suspended Saturday, he returned Sunday morning to finish the third round and built a three-shot lead. He wasted no time, pulling ahead with two early birdies. And on a demanding Ocean Course with enough wind to demand utmost precision, McIlroy played the final 23 holes without a bogey. It was reminiscent of Woods going the last 26 holes without a bogey at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open.
“He seems to have that ability that when it’s a big tournament, he’s right there just waiting to break loose,” Davis Love III said Monday. “A lot like Tiger. The bigger the stage, the better he plays.”
Does that make McIlroy the next Woods?
Winning the second major was a big deal to McIlroy because so much is expected of him. He was never going to be a one-and-done major champion. The golf world knew that. But his win at Kiawah followed a turbulent season of peaks and valleys. McIlroy held off a furious charge by Woods to win the Honda Classic and go to No. 1 in early March. He went into a funk by missing four cuts in five tournaments, and then he shut up the critics with another dominant display in the final major of the year.
“I was a little frustrated with how I was playing earlier on in the year, but a few people in this room were probably pushing panic buttons for no reason,” McIlroy said. “It’s just great to be able to put my name on another major championship trophy, and looking forward to April next year and getting a crack at another one.”
That would be Augusta National for the Masters.
And next year is when McIlroy will see if he can stack up to the incomparable standard created by Woods.
McIlroy now is halfway home to the Grand Slam. Woods became the fifth player, and the youngest at age 24, to win all four major championships. He won the third leg at the U.S. Open with that 15-shot win at Pebble Beach, and completed the slam with an eight-shot win at St. Andrews in the British Open. Woods didn’t stop there. He won the next two majors to become the only player to hold all four professional majors at the same time.
McIlroy is not there yet. Not even close.
“It’s tough to say that Rory is a Tiger Woods-type player,” Graeme McDowell said. “Tiger Woods is a once-in-a-lifetime type player, and Rory McIlroy is at least a once-in-a-decade type player. He’s that good. I’ve been saying it for years how good he is.”
Jack Nicklaus set the standard with 18 majors, which Woods is trying to surpass. Woods remains stuck on 14 majors, and has gone more than four years without one. Nicklaus never had a gap that big, though Nicklaus never had the problems — with injuries or in his personal life — that Woods has had to tackle.
But the measure of Woods is more than just majors.
Woods won 54 times around the world, including 10 majors, before turning 30. McIlroy’s win Sunday was the sixth of his career.
“I’ve won my second major at the same age as he had,” McIlroy said. “But he went on that incredible run like 2000, 2001, 2002, and won so many. I’d love to sit up here and tell you that I’m going to do the same thing, but I just don’t know. It’s been great to win my first major last year and to back that up with another one this year. I can’t ask for any more. I just want to keep working hard, keep practicing, and hopefully, there’s a few more of these in my closet when my career finishes.”
It was Padraig Harrington who suggested it might be McIlroy — not Woods — who might catch Nicklaus. That sounded absurd last year at Congressional when McIlroy set the U.S. Open scoring record on a course that was soft and vulnerable from so much rain.
Kiawah was a strong test. McIlroy made it look easy. Asked to pick one part of his game that could have been better, Boy Wonder leaned into the microphone and said with a smile, “Nothing. It was all good.”
Woods used to make it look easy.
McIlroy is the sixth-youngest player to have two majors, joining a list that includes Young Tom Morris, John McDermott, Gene Sarazen, Nicklaus and Ballesteros. Those are legendary figures in golf. Morris died at age 24, while McDermott was committed to a mental hospital about the same age.
In contemporary times, consider another impressive list. In the last 50 years, McIlroy became only the 12th player to win a major in back-to-back years. The others were Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Ballesteros, Curtis Strange, Nick Faldo, Woods, Phil Mickelson and Harrington.
Woods doesn’t usually offer his thoughts on players unless asked, and McIlroy was on everyone’s mind Sunday at Kiawah.
“We all know the talent he has,” Woods said, echoing his comments from three years ago. “He’s got all the talent in the world to do what he’s doing. And this is the way that Rory can play. When he gets it going, it’s pretty impressive to watch.”
How to sustain that level of play?
“You just do it,” Woods said.