KOHLER, Wis. – Used to be, you showed up at a major and first thing you asked was, "How's Tiger doing?" Second thing you asked, "How's Phil doing?"
Right now, in front of our very eyes and hi-definition televisions and witnessed by the birds of Lake Michigan here at Whistling Straits, the questions are beginning to change. As we barrel into the final day of major championship golf in the summer of 2010, we find ourselves at these majors beginning to ask, "How's Rory doing?" And, after that: "How's Dustin doing?"
Rory, Dustin, Nick – that's Nick Watney, your 54-hole leader at 13-under, three clear of McIlroy and Johnson – these are the new names of a new decade.
The transformation of the game is under way, construction work on the game's identity not unlike the scale of work done by Whistling Straits architect Pete Dye to build this faux Irish links in the heart of Cheeseland. Tiger Woods has a knee with surgical scars and a psyche with too many scars to count. He's 10 shots back. Phil Mickelson showed up here this week and told everyone he has a form of arthritis. He's 40 years old and 11 shots back.
Meantime, there were Rory and Dustin on a Saturday binge at the PGA Championship, both firing 67s, with Johnson playing his way into the final twosome with Watney and McIlroy playing his way into the penultimate twosome with China's Wenchong Liang (course-record 64).
They're hard to miss, those two. They played together, chatting away, old friends since they met in the 2007 Walker Cup at Rory's home course, Royal County Down, in Northern Ireland. Three years later, at the year's final major, they were Saturday story lines. McIlroy was the one in the red shirt with the Peter Brady locks spilling out from under his white cap, Johnson was the one in the sky blue shirt and white slacks, a hipster soul patch under his lip letting you know the 21st century has come to the royal and ancient game.
While Tiger and Phil are wracked by pain both physical and mental, Rory and Dustin showcased golf swings absurdly free of any form of restraint, nearly bragging of their birth certificates with their monster shoulder turns, firing hips and putting strokes full of nerve, not nervousness.
"A couple of young guys with some serious action, huh?" said Johnson's caddie, Bobby Brown.
McIlroy is 21, and if he wins on Sunday, he would be three days younger than Tiger Woods was when he won the 1997 Masters. Johnson just turned 26, and he would be the youngest major winner since Ben Curtis, who was also 26 when he won the 2003 British Open.
"Yeah, you sorta get the feeling Rory and Dustin will be knocking heads for the next 15 years or so, don't you?" Brown said.
What we also have in these two are redemption tales. If you feel like you've heard their major championship stories before, it's because you have.
Johnson, famously, was the 54-hole leader at Pebble Beach, a hefty three-stroke lead at that. And then that second shot Sunday at the par-5 second hole at Pebble just missed the fringe and buried, deep, in some weeds. Johnson couldn't even find it for a few moments, the lie was so epically bad. There was a left-handed swipe, a duff, a blurry, fast-forwarded nightmare that ended in a triple-bogey seven, his lead gone. His heart still in his mouth, Johnson pulled his drive on No. 3, lost his ball and made double. He shot 82.
Johnson blew out of Pebble Beach without a word, and conventional wisdom said he'd go into golf's version of the witness protection program, never to be seen near a leaderboard again. That's what happens sometimes in this game.
Except this: He somehow used Pebble as fuel, not shame. Those close to him said he began working out more, hitting more balls, honing his short game. Instead of hiding, Dustin Johnson stood up. He posted an impressive tie-14th at St. Andrews, and now he finds himself in Sunday's final pairing here at "Glory's Last Shot."
And all the while, he keeps playing that gorgeous brand of Dustin Johnson golf. He went driver/6-iron into the 569-yard par-5 16th, making birdie. He went 3-iron/sand wedge into the 355-yard 6th hole, making birdie. And when he found trouble, as he did in the nettlesome lie well behind the 9th green, on a sidehill lie, in Pete Dye's fescue, he used the softest of hands and most still of heads to feather a wedge to 6 feet for a par save to remember. His distance remains awesome – a 314 average ranks fourth here, and McIlroy told the story of a 407-yard drive Johnson hit in front of Rory at the Walker Cup – and he's played the par-5s in 9-under.
Johnson admitted to feeling proud of how he's handled the Pebble Beach fallout. And his caddie says being three shots back, instead of three shots in front, might be better for the nerves. "Less to think about, you know?" Brown said.
Part two of our Summer of Redemption features the kid from Ulster with the nickname "Rors" on the back of his cap. McIlroy, remember, was the first-round leader at St. Andrews after a dazzling, record-tying 63. A Northern Irish lad, laden with press clippings, sniffing a chance at a Claret Jug at age 21 – it had the makings of a monster story, especially given McIlroy's accessible personality, seemingly ego-free. That he was gifted with a golf swing to die for, and a tempo you could watch all day, made his story that much more alluring.
His tie-3rd finish at the Old Course, excellent on paper, is less remembered than his disastrous second-round 80, a storm-battered, soaking mess that reminded you of the game's cruel fates. His tee time was an angry accident from the golf gods, right in the teeth of Scotland's storms.
Some people go a lifetime without a second chance. McIlroy's comes just four short weeks after St. Andrews, a happy accident of golf's calendar. If you got the sense that Mother Nature had delayed a Rory Coronation at the Old Course, and wondered when he'd get his next chance, wonder no more.
"It's nice that it's come the major right after St. Andrews," he said Saturday night. "Yeah. It's nice to have another chance … it's a great place to be."
The humid, sticky Wisconsin air does not feel like Northern Ireland, and he said he's doing battle with the Badger State's finest and largest mosquitoes, lathering on bug spray. But other than that he feels good, relaxed and in a comfort zone. He found himself talking on the course with Johnson about upcoming vacations, the relaxed talk of two competitors secure in their own skin. To watch him use his putter with such striking sureness – 6-foot birdie on No. 2, 12-foot birdie on No. 3, 6-foot birdie on No. 5, 7-foot birdie on No. 10 – was to watch a young man entirely in the moment.
It almost reminded you of how Tiger Woods wielded his putter inside 10 feet – back in his prime.
Lest we forget, one year ago on the Saturday night at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, Tiger had a two-shot lead after 54 holes, and his 15th major championship seemed a fait accompli. But then Y.E. Yang chipped in for eagle, hit that hybrid from the 18th fairway and then hoisted his golf bag and screamed in triumph on the 18th green.
And then came Thanksgiving Night in Orlando.
And now, one year later, Tiger tees off at 10:44 a.m. local time, some two hours and 51 minutes and 19 groups ahead of Dustin and Nick, with Rory right in front of those two.
The names, they are a-changin.'