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Rory McIlroy lets Tiger know he's No. 1 – and plans to stay there for a while

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

Man, what a treat for golf fans – players in a fierce grapple, right down to the last hole at the Deutsche Bank Championship on Labor Day TV.

I mean, will you ever forget where you were when Charley Hoffman edged Jonas Blixt for the final spot of the FedEx Cup playoff's top 70 players? Wow!

All right, all right. My requisite cheap shot joke at the super-contrived FedEx Cup standings is out of the way. Now we can start marinating in Rory-ness.

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Rory McIlroy now has three PGA Tour victories this year and five for his career. (AP)

 

With a Sunday 67 and a one-stroke win over Louis Oosthuizen and two-stroke win over Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy didn't just essentially clinch PGA Tour Player of the Year honors with his third win of the year and his second in three starts (don't forget, one of them was the PGA Championship just last month.) He didn't just strengthen his grip on the world No. 1 ranking. What he really did was let Tiger – and, yes, Oosthuizen and the rest of the free golf world; but really, Tiger – know that this situation, established firmly at Kiawah's PGA, isn't changing anytime soon.

In a big-money tournament that saw Tiger shoot a Sunday 66 to stir visions of days of yore, choose your analogy for Rory's reply:

If this was a football game, McIlroy would be the team that marched 80 yards in six plays for a touchdown, then immediately returned an interception for a touchdown on the opposition's next possession.

If this was a basketball game, McIlroy would be the player who just went coast-to-coast for a dunk, then stole the inbound pass for an uncontested layup.

If this were a baseball game, McIlroy would be the team that hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the inning, then struck out the side in the bottom.

Perhaps more vividly, imagine McIlroy's golf game as like a gargantuan Bekins moving van, beep-beeping as it backs its way into Tiger's neighborhood, with McIlroy, in white slacks and an aquamarine golf shirt, waving it into the driveway of his mansion. As the workers unload expensive home furnishings and enormous flat-screen TVs, McIlroy waves to his neighbor Tiger, who is watering his lawn, looking envious. "Hiya, neighbor!" Rory might shout. "I'll be hosting a barbecue this fine Labor Day, toasting to my unbelievably good 23-year-old life. Come on over when you're done!"

[Related: Tiger Woods tops $100 million mark in career earnings]

(Of course, at that point, Tiger will email Rory the link to the story where Tiger just passed $100 million in career earnings, with the subject line: "SCOREBOARD," but work with me here.)

Whatever happened to McIlroy this summer is forgiven. All the expectations guys like me heaped on McIlroy – as in, win a bunch of majors, Rory, and we don't want to hear any lame excuses – turned out to be a bit much. Sometimes, life has to play out.

And McIlroy admitted Monday after his win that he had "some things going on" in the summer when he played poorly, missed three cuts and generally took on all the sizzle of Facebook stock.

Now look at him: three wins to tie Tiger (a fact Rory noted) including a major. And now look at guys like me, understanding that evaluating a player's "year" means to let an actual year take place. In fact, Rory himself sounded like he's just tucking his napkin into his collar, hungry for more, saying he'd like "four or five" wins before the FedEx Cup playoffs end in two weeks.

Also of note: McIlroy won a squeaker. This is not insignificant. His two major championship wins were held in Blowout City, with no player inching within eight strokes. From those, we knew McIlroy had the "Tiger Gear," the extra dimension in which you slap the bumper sticker on your golf bag that reads: "HOW'S MY PLAYING? DIAL 1-800-EAT-DUST."

McIlroy's four PGA Tour wins had all been by at least two strokes, so to see him grapple with some adversity down the stretch – a chunked tee shot on No. 15 worthy of a 22-handicapper (he still made an excellent par), a missed fairway and green on No. 17 (he made a nifty up-and-down to save bogey), and the difficulty posed by an over-amped drive into the rough on the par-5 No. 18, nursing a one-stroke lead. McIlroy smartly laid up, hit a wedge and darn near ended with a birdie putt on the lip before settling for a smart par and a one-stroke win – his first such in the States.

[Related: McIlroy comes from three back to win Deutsche Bank Championship]

And when asked after the win if he was watching Tiger's progress on the leader board, McIlroy had the answer for a new era in golf: "No, not at all."

So said Rory McIlroy – the Validation Sensation.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

64-68-68-66 – 18-under 266, Tiger Woods, third place, FedEx Cup Playoffs Deutsche Bank Championship, TPC Boston, Norton, Mass.

Say, what do you notice about those four rounds of golf by Tiger? Hint: You're not counting to 70 in any of them.

Now you're thinking to yourself: So Tiger shot four rounds in the 60s. Big deal.

And then you think to yourself: Wait. Tiger shot rounds in the 60s? That IS a big deal.

Because, golf fans, here is the key statistic: That is the first time Tiger has shot four rounds in the 60s since September 2009 at the BMW Championship.

What do we notice about that date, as I continue my elementary school teacher's voice?

That's right. It was pre-Escalade-into-a-tree Tiger. Two months after those four rounds in the 60s, on Thanksgiving Night 2009, Tiger took the SUV into the tree and all hell broke loose for, oh, about the next two years, 10 months and counting.

This is a notable thing.

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Tiger Woods played well at the Deutsche Bank Championship, but had to settle for third. (AP)

 

So often in this column, so often all over the golf world, we divide Tiger's life into pre-Escalade-into-a-tree, and post-Escalade-into-a-tree, like B.C. and A.D. divides time in history.

He still hasn't won a major in his post-Escalade, Tiger 2.0 incarnation. And he has often had weekend trouble in his post-Escalade, Tiger 2.0 incarnation. But if we're going to scrutinize – and yes, he still misses putts he "used to make in his sleep," as Johnny Miller noted – we should note that Tiger stitched together his best four rounds of golf since pre-Escalade Tiger.

Problem for Tiger is, last time he posted those four rounds in the 60s, he won. This time, he wound up looking up at both McIlroy and Oosthuizen – two guys who didn't really exist in pre-Escalade Tiger's world. Tiger, you have been alerted: What used to be good enough to win, now is only good enough for third. Tiger at his best now has company. Which dovetails nicely into our next chapter …

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"Tiger probably thought he was going to get some help out of these guys, maybe as a hunch, like the old days, when people would basically lay down and say: Go ahead, Tiger, you can win another one. Those days seem to be gone now." – Johnny Miller, NBC.

Exactly! That's just what I was trying to say, John. Thanks for the assist.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Let's consider the case of Louis Oosthuizen, a player who totes a record British Open win from 2010, a tear-inducing swing of beauty and an enigmatic air. After all, who is Louis Oosthuizen? Is he one of the best players in the world, with three top-5s in his last four PGA Tour starts, two European Tour wins in 2012 and a heartbreaking Masters playoff loss to Bubba Watson that indicates he is a star worthy of tussling with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods?

Or is he all of the above – only missing the "cold-blooded killer" gene so necessary to rack up McIlroy-esque and Tiger-esque feats?

One has to wonder after a few of these Oosthuizen near-misses. For example, he arrived Monday at TPC Boston boasting a three-stroke lead. You'd think, with his game, and decent scoring conditions, he could do enough to make good on that 54-hole lead and notch a big win in America, his first.

Except … Oosthuizen floundered. When he wasn't treading water with routine pars, daring McIlroy to catch him, he was doing things like making double-bogey 6 on the par-4 fifth hole to cough up the lead.

But, golf offers redemption. And on the back nine, after birdies on No. 13 and No. 15, Oosthuizen had a pulse. Looie O closed the deficit to one stroke, and then watched when McIlroy began making a mess of the 17th hole, missing the fairway into some deep rough off the tee then missing the green badly, into some awfully awkward rough.

[Related: Video: Phil Mickelson pulls off tricky pitch shot on the 18th hole]

Oosthuizen, meanwhile, striped his tee shot and had an easy wedge into the green, where even a routine par might earn him the lead. Except … Oosthuizen blundered.

Somehow, some way, in the manner that makes you question Looie O's killer instinct, he whiffed the wedge and missed the green, into the rough. He could not get up and down, wound up making bogey and handed Rory the reprieve he was looking for. "Bit of a gag," was how Johnny Miller summarized the hole.

We won't even get into how he muffed the 18th hole, again missing the green into the rough, and then missing a 12-footer for a playoff. Let's instead go back out to the 17th fairway, remind Looie O about how much we love that golf swing, how much we enjoy his easy South African manner, how much we'd like to see him start landing haymakers on the golf scene – most of all, remind him how easy par is from that fairway lie – and … give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

The penultimate FedEx Cup stop is the BMW Championship, and you'll be relieved to know Charley Hoffman will be there.

I kid. Sort of. The "race for the FedEx Cup" bottom of the ladder is less than compelling theater, but the FedEx Cup is delivering great fields at the top. There's nothing like $10 million to get the big boys out of their private jets and on to the golf course.

So, off to Crooked Stick, Ind., we go for the top 70 players, starting Thursday. Tiger and Rory and Looie O will be there, and if it's anything like TPC Boston, we're in for a great show.

[Ryder Cup Rundown: Who’s in, on the bubble, and in trouble]

But first! Tuesday is the big day for U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, who will name his four captain's picks for the big showdown with Europe at Medinah at the end of the month.

Common wisdom is Cap'n Love will choose four of these names: Brandt Snedeker, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler, with the heavy lean on the first four, because they're the hottest players at the moment.

But the picks are set for 10:15 a.m. ET Tuesday, so by the time you read this, the picks will be made. It's a good pool of players, and other than wanting to see Rickie Fowler in match play with something at stake, where the kid breathes fire, I can't argue with taking the first four names of Snedeker, Stricker, Johnson and Furyk.

Only problem: European captain Jose Maria Olazabal gets McIlroy, the kid outta Northern Ireland. Darn birth certificates.

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