MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin: 29 August, 1996. On the day Tiger Woods played his first round as a professional, the (off course) rules of golf changed forever.
When the still spindly young Californian left the amateur ranks with a mind-boggling level of success – three US Junior championships and three US Amateur titles – already behind him, the old Scottish game simultaneously took an unprecedented step towards the wider and often vacuous world of celebrity. Less than eight months later, the Masters Tournament had its first black champion and for the first time in history the most famous sportsman on the planet was not the heavyweight boxing champion or a footballer, but a golfer.
At first, such a scenario sounded uniquely appetising and appealing. And it was, even for those unfortunate (but soon-to-be extremely wealthy) individuals history chose to play second fiddle to Woods. Prize money escalated quickly to unprecedented heights, as sponsors rushed to grab the (Nike) shirt-tail of the man who would dominate the game like no other before him. But it wasn’t all good news. As Woods was to discover soon enough, his exalted status came with a level of media and public attention unheard of in the previously cosseted and conservative world of golf.
Woods’ life and times were scrutinised like those of no other golfer. He was and is a unique phenomenon, a fact underlined by things subsequently returning to near-normal as the likes of Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald ascended to No.1 in the rankings. Each stayed under the radar through being stereotypically German, happily married and inherently dull respectively.
Rory McIlroy is different though. The appealing young Ulsterman’s exciting game and shining charisma make him the obvious successor to Woods both on and off the course. But direct comparison is unrealistic, at least for a while. Rating Rory against Tiger’s ridiculous level of accomplishment is inevitably premature given the 14-year age gap between the two. And away from the game, McIlroy’s upbringing and background are starkly different from that of Woods. All of which makes the chain of events over the past couple of weeks – the premature departure from the Honda Classic, the obviously nonsensical excuse about toothache – unsurprising.
Think about it. While McIlroy has surely been long enough aware of how talented he is, it is a bit much to expect even such a prodigiously gifted young lad from an “ordinary” family to step into the role of world No.1 without at least the odd misstep. That fact alone is enough for this observer to view with contempt those who sneer cynically at his endearing sincerity and openness.
The good news is that those qualities contribute greatly to the general feeling of goodwill emanating from most of the press towards this eminently likeable personality. The bad news is that the same press pack contains a minority for whom golf and its myriad intricacies and subtleties are the last things they want to write about. Throw in the fact that some of those predisposed to give McIlroy the benefit of at least a few doubts are almost completely ignorant of golfing technique and the temptation is always there to lapse into gossipy, tabloid-like trivia.
For example, while there has been much idle speculation over the suitability – or not – of the gleaming new set of Nike clubs peeking from the McIlroy bag, has there been any serious analysis of their plusses and minuses? The answer: very little, if any – because so few scribes have the background, knowledge and wherewithal to do so.
Also unfair: every aspect of the game played by every future No.1 is inevitably destined to be compared with Tiger’s in his pomp. That is silly, if only because no one – not even Jack Nicklaus – has ever come closer to being unbeatable than the now 14-time major champion. Woods’ rate of success was unprecedented – and will surely remain, at least for a while, unapproachable.
In truth, comparisons between McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, rather than Woods, are far more apt. Like the left-hander, the Ulsterman has shown himself prone to periods of inconsistency. They have similar swings too, in that both make free flowing and uninhibited passes at the ball, even on those days when things are not going their way. Such a philosophy, while admirable and exciting, inevitably leads to the odd 75 amidst the 67s.
McIlroy and Mickelson share similar temperaments, both far removed from the clinical Woods. Both are prone to the odd verbal gaff. During the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s, McIlory did himself no favours by voicing a hitherto unknown distaste for a combination of foul weather and links golf. And, earlier this year, Mickelson made foolish statements regarding his tax situation in his native California, comments no one wants to hear from a multi-millionaire enjoying a lifestyle far removed from the norm.
On the course, both Rory and “Lefty” are more artistic than scientific in their approach: both are hitters of great shots rather than great shot-makers, spectacular more than steady. Again, Woods is the opposite. While there have been moments of great theatre in Tiger’s career, the vast majority of his victories have been the result of building a lead then grimly hanging on. All of which leads one to believe that – clubs apart – copying almost anything Woods does or has done may not be the best course of action for McIlroy. For example, it is interesting that Rory has decided to employ his long-time coach, Michael Bannon, on a full-time basis.
Almost from the cradle, Woods has had a swing instructor by his side, with Butch Harmon, Hank Haney and now Sean Foley guiding him through his professional career. But Rory has not, a fact that has surely led to his more freewheeling approach to the game. The danger is that, with coach and pupil together so much more often, the former will be tempted to talk if only to justify his new status and the latter will then listen.
Albeit with no real evidence to back up such an assumption, the exaggerated outside-the-line takeaway with which Rory began 2013 – followed by the inevitable dropping of the club beneath the ideal plane on the way down – may have been the result of over-experimenting on the range. Then again, he may just be going through one of the brief slumps that have already been a feature of his career. Let’s hope that is the case.
Whatever, it is about time that even the “sneering classes” amongst us start cutting McIlroy the same sort of slack that marked the first decade of Woods’ career. The emergence of such a worthy representative of a game so often marked by hypocrisy – witness the establishment’s unwillingness to expose serial cheats – is something to be celebrated, not derided. So let Rory fall from grace now and then, but save the serious abuse for a time when he is making the same mistakes over and over. We all, gifted or not, deserve that much.