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Tiger or Rory: Who Wins More Majors?


Tiger


Rory McIlroy enjoys one glorious summer and suddenly he’s on track to become the greatest golfer ever. Jack Nicklaus himself says McIlroy could win 15 to 20 majors in his career. This magazine wonders if McIlroy will one day shove aside Tiger Woods. Easy now. Relax, people. Here’s a cautionary tale you might


remember, plucked straight from 2008. Woods, playing on one leg, unleashes a primal scream for the ages after making his playoff-forcing, 72nd-hole birdie putt in the U.S. Open. He then outlasts Rocco Mediate to win his 14th major championship. Woods is 32, in the prime of his


transcendent career. Surely, he will break Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. Just look at the calendar—he’ll probably pass Nicklaus in 2010, when the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach (site of his epic 2000 romp) and the British Open returns to St. Andrews (where he won the claret jug in ’00 and ’05). C’mon, it’s inevitable. Step aside, Jack.


Make way for Tiger. That didn’t work out so well, eh?


McIlroy lords over the golf universe


right now, at age 25, but he will not catch Woods in career majors for one simple rea- son: Stuff happens. Life happens. It doesn’t take much for a carefree, express ride down golf ’s superhighway to turn into a bumpy, pothole-filled detour to mortality. Another word of caution: Nobody was posing this question in the fall of 2013. McIlroy not only didn’t win a major last year, he went winless in all 16 of his PGA Tour starts. Nicklaus wasn’t making any bold proclamations then. And one more word of caution: Even


now, after a spectacular season, McIlroy has four majors in his career. Four. That’s impressive, absolutely, but it still leaves him 10 short of matching Woods. That’s a lot of major territory left to


cover. Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson didn’t win 10 majors in their entire careers. Neither did Arnold Palmer or Sam Snead. So there would be no shame in falling


short of Woods. None at all. Some memories from 2012 leaped


to mind. McIlroy was defending U.S. Open champion at the time, and I traveled to the PGA Tour event in Charlotte to gather information for a long feature in advance of that year’s Open at The Olympic Club. Swing coach Butch Harmon enter- tained a small group of writers one night, and I asked Harmon about McIlroy. He raved about his talent, his swing, his poise. Then I asked how McIlroy compared to Woods at a similar stage. Harmon scoffed, essentially saying it wasn’t close. Harmon coached Woods in his early


20s, yes, but he wasn’t the only expert reluctant to anoint Rory as Tiger’s equal. Television analyst Paul Azinger predicted McIlroy would have a “terrific career” comparable to Phil Mickelson’s or Ernie Els’—and he meant that as a compliment. “He’s not Tiger Woods,” Azinger said


then. “Rory is a normal kid who plays abnormal golf—he’s an unbelievable player. I love watching him swing the club, but he’s not Tiger.” He’s not Tiger in many ways. McIlroy is


8 / NCGA.ORG / FALL 2014


a more appealing person, for starters—more engaging with fans and media, less self- absorbed. He brings an endearing charisma, just the right blend of swagger and humility. McIlroy also doesn’t have Woods’ single-minded ferocity, and that’s a big reason Tiger dominated. McIlroy seems intent on balancing his professional and personal lives, an admirable goal but maybe not conducive to challenging Woods on golf ’s history pages. “He surely could dominate,” Johnny


Miller once said of McIlroy. “It’s hard to know what’s inside a player. You see a guy like Gary Player and he hit a lot of balls. Rory does, too. But what you don’t see is that insatiable fire, and whether he determines his self-worth by winning championships. “Some of these guys, like Tiger, his


self-worth was all about what he did and how many championships he won…I think Rory is a lot like I was—he wants to win and he’d like to win more, but I don’t think he has the Gary Player in him.” Another element to consider is the time in which McIlroy plays. Many players now have the ability to win a major—way more players than in 2008, when Woods last won one. That’s why the Rory Era will feature appearances by Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth, among others. McIlroy also doesn’t play the kind of


cautious, conservative golf Woods used to win many of his majors. Nicklaus leaned on a similarly measured approach throughout his career. McIlroy plays more like Palmer did—


aggressively, relentlessly, entertainingly. Maybe this will evolve as McIlroy gets older, but it’s easy to picture his style cost- ing him two or three majors over the years, as Arnie’s did. In the end, McIlroy will win more ma-


jors than Palmer (seven), more than Tom Watson (eight), more than Hogan and Player (nine each) and maybe even more than Walter Hagen (11). But he won’t chase down Tiger.


RON KROICHICK covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle.


PHOTO: AP


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