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Rory McIlroy is tracing Tiger Woods' career arc, but can he sprint away from the pack à la Tiger?

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

MEDINAH, Ill. – As his playing partners took off after their fifth-hole drives, Rory McIlroy relented to a television interview in the middle of a practice round for this weekend's 39th edition of the Ryder Cup.

No, Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia and Graeme McDowell, the heart of the European team, weren't waiting on their 23-year-old teammate from Northern Ireland. It would be on him to catch up to them.

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Rory McIlroy sprints to catch up with his foursome during a practice round Wednesday. (Yahoo! Sports)

And so as the three players arrived at their balls, behind them played out a scene straight out of Forrest Gump: There was McIlroy swiftly jogging up the middle of the fairway, covering the 200-plus-yard distance in no time flat.

"Run, Rory, run," a young boy yelled from the right side of the fairway.

As if it's the first time McIlroy's been urged to get somewhere fast.

Since joining the European Tour as a 17-year-old prodigy in 2007, McIlroy's been pegged as the next great thing, which in golf parlance means being the next Tiger Woods. To a certain degree, McIlroy has lived up to the hype. He already has two major championships to his credit and earned his first No. 1 ranking prior to his 23rd birthday.

Using a line graph, his and Woods' career arcs would be nearly identical at this stage of their lives. And on Tuesday at Medinah Country Club, no less a source than José María Olazábal, captain of this year's European squad, claimed that McIlroy's game "is at this moment very close to how good Tiger was at that stretch of time between 1999 and 2002."

That's a bold statement, like Joe Namath bold.

[Related: Blame Tiger Woods for Team USA's recent run of failure at Ryder Cup]

For 1999 was the year Tiger Woods stepped on the accelerator like it had no rev limit and roared away from the field as if they were stuck in neutral. He won eight PGA tournaments that year, nine the next and began collecting major championships like quarters plucked out of a pocket and dropped into a change jar. By the end of the 2002 season, he'd won 34 PGA tournaments and eight majors.

To achieve that kind of dominance, the margin between you and the field has to be gigantic, and the one Tiger had over the next player in line was bigger than the gap between Michael Strahan's two front teeth.

So when Olazábal compares McIlroy to Tiger circa '99-'02,he's taking a Bob Beamon-esque leap of faith.

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Europe's Rory McIlroy reacts during a practice round on Wednesday. (AP)

"He's got the whole game," Olazábal said.

But with that "whole game," can he speed away from the field like Woods did in '99?

It's worth pointing out that back then, the same question was asked of Tiger. For much of the '99 season, he and David Duval took turns atop the world rankings, just as McIlroy has done this year with Donald.

Woods finally wrested control of the top spot after winning that year's PGA Championship which, ironically, took place at Medinah Country Club, host of this weekend's Ryder Cup. He held that No. 1 spot for five years, or nearly three times longer than anyone else had since the introduction of the ranking system in 1986.

[Also: European Ryder Cup team honors the memory of the late Seve Ballesteros]

McIlroy isn't much interested in the rankings, not this week anyway as he tries to lead Europe to a second straight Ryder Cup victory.

"No, not at all," McIlroy said Wednesday when asked if there should be higher expectations on him as the world's top-ranked player. "This week I'm not the No. 1 player in the world; I'm one person in a 12-man team, and that's it. It's a team effort. There's 12 guys all striking towards the same goal. I'm just part of that."

Kind of like Tiger is just a part of the U.S.’s hopes of dethroning the Euros, right?

Fact is, both Woods and McIlroy will be playing at least four matches, probably five, during the three-day event, which makes him much more than just one of the guys striking towards the same goal. The hope, of course, is that the world's two best players will be pitted against one another in one of Sunday's 12 singles matches, with the ideal scenario having them battling it out in the day's final match to determine the winner.

If it does come down to them, McIlroy will be looking for a similar outcome as the one that happened Wednesday on the fifth. After catching up to his teammates, he dropped an iron shot to within 15 feet, lined up the putt, drained it and pumped his fist emphatically, albeit mockingly, in the air.

It was only practice, but without even trying McIlroy carded an eagle, then walked off the green, leaving his playing mates behind.

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