Tiger Woods spoiled us rotten.
Ever since his game and reputation spiraled after his infamous fire hydrant encounter in 2009, the golf world has searched for the next Tiger Woods. There was hope after last year's U.S. Open that Rory McIlroy was the prodigy we've all been waiting for. "Rory's historic win will draw inevitable comparisons to Woods," blared one golf magazine headline last summer.
A year later, perhaps we need to call off the comparisons for a while.
McIlroy, 23, missed his eighth cut Friday at the Memorial – as many missed cuts as Woods has in his entire career – and while he still has more talent and potential than almost anyone we've seen in the last several years, the idea that anyone else will dominate at a young age like Woods once did is looking like a bit of a reach.
Woods wowed the world in his early 20s because of his ability to focus solely on his game at an age when most golfers simply aren't seasoned enough to know how to block everything out. McIlroy, with his gorgeous swing and vibrant personality, is clearly having the growing pains that Woods didn't. Friday's missed cut was his third straight.
In his post-round interview, McIlroy looked downright defeated, talking about how one or two big numbers always seems to doom him. He spoke of "trying to string 18 good holes together," the corner of his mouth burying into his cheek in frustration. As he answered one question, he peered down as if in shame. At the end of the press session, he said he might stick around to "hit some balls" instead of going home. So much for the McIlroy who could just show up and swing away.
"He maybe took his eye off the ball," world No. 1 Luke Donald said of McIlroy earlier this week. "I remember when I was 23 and had an attractive girlfriend, I would take my eye off the ball sometimes, as well. You can't blame the kid."
No, you can't. McIlroy is now rich and internationally famous, with a rich and internationally famous girlfriend in tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. That takes up quality time. Some say it's taken up too much quality time, as Wozniacki hasn't been her usual self on the court lately, either.
Give McIlroy credit for admitting recently that he's been guilty of "maybe not practicing as hard as I had been." But rescind credit for following that up with a jaunt to Paris for the French Open and a lovely photo taken in front of the Eiffel Tower. Romantic, yes. Smart, not so much.
Whatever the reason for his slide, McIlroy is finding that the preservation of his effortless swing is also going to take up some quality time. We knew from the beginning that Woods would devote that time – remember the ad with him forgoing the TV to stomp outside in the rain to swat balls? – but we aren't yet sure about McIlroy. Maybe we're about to find out.
"Everyone goes through this," McIlroy said earlier this week, "where they just don't feel that comfortable with their game."
And sure, that's true. But "comfortable" is something McIlroy always appeared to be, whether he did amazingly well (like at the 2011 U.S. Open) or did poorly (in the final round of the 2011 Masters). He was known for his ability to shrug things off. He even gained popularity by shrugging off the pressure of the Woods intimidation factor. McIlroy, like Woods before him, was perpetually unbothered.
But now he's bothered. And even though he can come back at the U.S. Open and dominate again, some of the appeal of young McIlroy was the carefree demeanor – the innocence of youth. This recent consternation may end up doing his game a world of good, but it also takes a bit of the sheen off his curly-haired shine.
And it's funny, because now McIlroy has more in common with the present-day Woods than we thought: missed cuts, a mini-tantrum on the course, struggles with the balance of work and home, swing issues and even a decision to skip pre-tournament media availability. With rounds this week that alternated between inspiring and awful – he doubled two on the back Friday to finish with a 79 – McIlroy has what Woods has: an identity crisis along with a swing crisis. And the rest of us are left to try to figure out which came first.
There is plenty of time for both to be resolved. Remember, Woods went a full season without a major victory between his first (at 21) and his second (at 23). If McIlroy wins at the U.S. Open, everyone will forget about the missed cuts. (And if Woods wins this weekend, everyone will forget about his missed cuts.) On Friday, McIlroy said he has "a long way to go," which is both sobering and reassuring to hear.
The takeaway here is not that McIlroy is falling apart; it's that inconsistency and youth are tougher to separate than, well, a young man and his new girlfriend. And while most young golfers, like Donald in his 20s, get the chance to work through inconsistency in relative obscurity, McIlroy's talent and the world's comparisons make each cut feel more like a terrible omen than a simple slump.
Let's remember that the "next Tiger Woods" is actually the golf course. It's easy to forget that in this sport, athletes rarely dominate for long because the challenges change every single day. The simple shifting of a pin placement from Saturday to Sunday can sap momentum, to say nothing of the shift from time zone to time zone, weather pattern to weather pattern, field to field. That's not to mention the head games caused by these moving targets. All this is overcome only with hours and hours of repetition, which is tougher when you're in demand by everyone you know and everyone you don't.
So while we'd love to shout, "Tiger Woods is back!" and we'll surely shout "Rory McIlroy is back!" What's really "back" is the game itself – laying superstars low on a weekly basis at a country club near you.
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