Master stroke

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland  

Rory McIlroy's best-reported exchange with Tiger Woods came in the lead-up to last year's Ryder Cup. In the press room the day before the pairings were to be drawn up, Woods's (who for the first time was featuring not as an automatic qualifier but a ‘captain's pick') reaction to McIlroy's comments of the recent past was sought. The youngster had expressed his desire to face Woods, on account of his poor form. “Me too,” Woods cold-stared. Would he care to elaborate? “No.”

Hits and misses

In the event, the face-off did not materialise. Woods was drawn against Italian Francesco Molinari in the singles and did not cross paths with his mop-haired antagonist in the foursomes or fourballs either. The contest would have enthralled, at least for Woods's precedent in responding to perceived affronts if nothing else. Ten months on, McIlroy has won his first Major, and in the context of Woods's dip in form (he has fallen to 19 in the rankings and his last tournament win came at the Australian Masters in November 2009; to be fair, though, he finished a decent joint fourth at the Masters this year), finds himself — perhaps to his own discomfort — ushered to the centre of the golf universe.

Although comparisons with Woods have existed ever since the Ulsterman joined the professional circuit with a similar prodigy reputation, they have soared in frequency since his US Open win last month. McIlroy was 22 years and 46 days old then, not too dissimilar to Woods who had two Majors against his name at that age. To extrapolate it to a changing of the guard, however, would be risky. The 35-year-old is a world away at 14 Major wins, and left-leg permitting, could still eclipse Jack Nicklaus's 18. Nicklaus himself cautioned after McIlroy's deeds at Congressional— “Don't anoint him as the crown prince yet. When he starts to win two, three or four, then you can say he's the guy we've got to watch, period. But until that time comes, he's one of a group of talented players that have got an opportunity to win.”

But then, McIlroy's talent is unquestionable. Any doubts over his composure too evaporated when he recovered from his spectacular implosion at Augusta in April —where he blew a four-stroke lead on the last day, shooting the worst final round in Masters history — to obliterate the competition two months later. The US Open victory was McIlroy's Pebble Beach, his 16-under 268 the lowest 72-hole total in tournament history (and one of several low-score records). He might have only finished 25th after a miserable time wrestling with the elements at The Open on Sunday (when he cheered on mentor and compatriot Darren Clarke) but the future appears unmistakably bright. He could, in all probability, have taken home the claret jug last year but for a poor second round. Despite his ruinous eight-over 80 on day two that time, McIlroy finished third, eight strokes behind eventual champion Louis Oosthuizen.

In public appeal, though, Woods brooks no comparison with McIlroy. Where the latter has grown to become the darling of the world, with his ebullience and jollity, the former remains an easy villain, frosty and unsmiling, his image at rock bottom. “Let's go Rory, let's go,” crowds cheered incessantly at Congressional. At McIlroy's home club in Holywood, a town of 12,000 in Northern Ireland, friends and members gathered before the TV in anticipation of his success. It is hard to envision similar scenes at Isleworth through any future Woods triumph. The American has not set a timetable for his return and it is not known if he will enter next month's PGA Championship, the year's last major. The next time they're paired together, though, things may not be feisty in the press room alone.

Fact File

Name: Rory McIlroy

Date of birth: May 4, 1989

Place of birth: Holywood, Northern Ireland

Ranking: 4

Professional wins: 3 (One major – US Open)

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 6:40:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/nxg/master-stroke/article2276435.ece

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