ST. LOUIS – The first assignment I ever had for KMOX was the 1985 US Open at Oakland Hills – a championship more known for who lost – T.C. Chen – than who won – Andy North. I had viewed American Opens in the context of years like Hale Irwin’s win at Winged Foot – a survival test as much as a competition among talents.
In the first round in Detroit, Chen raced to a five under 65 highlighted by a double eagle at the second, the only one to that point in US Open history. Fred Couples followed with a 66 and five others broke par including Belleville’s Jay Haas with a 69.
I was shocked at the red numbers and wondered about an Open being won in double figures under par. Fortunately my reports were limited to listing the leaders and their scores without my editorial concerns. By Sunday’s end North was the only player in the red with a one under total and I had learned my first lesson in covering golf – don’t race to a conclusion, wait for it.
A little over a week ago in Louisville I was on hand as 25-year-old Rory McIlroy made it back to back majors and four overall, and the word “era” was being tossed about in print and on the air. Applying my 1985 lesson I think it best to allow the sample size to grow before we hang the historic generational tag on the future of the young Irishmen.
Only three players in golf history meet my definition of era, which is high multiples of major wins over more than a decade of time – Jack Nicklaus 18, Tiger Woods 14 and Walter Hagen 11. McIlroy with four in four years is exceptional but no guarantee of generational ownership of the game.
Having denied him current immortality let me then add a perspective growing out of what I saw first hand in Louisville.
When he made the turn Sunday three shots down and looking very human I turned to a long time golf observer and said, the only player in the lead pack with the firepower to flip the switch and win the championship was McIlroy. Three strokes later with an eagle at ten the margin was one and everyone on the grounds knew the dynamics had changed.
It’s odd to look at player with three previous major wins posted in largely runaway fashion and say this was the most impressive of the fou,r but to me and McIlroy there is agreement on that point. “To win it in this fashion and this style, it means a lot. It means that I know that I can do it,” he said afterward. “I know that I can come‑from‑behind. I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a major and come out on top. Phil Mickelson, the second best player in this year and this generation, to be able to beat him on the back nine on a Sunday; it’s great to have in the memory bank and great to have in the locker going forward.”
It’s easy to look at his driving display through three consecutives wins at Hoylake, Firestone and Valhalla and realize on this streak he separates from everyone else in golf. He clearly has benefited from the physical instruction of his understated new mentor, Jack Nicklaus, who gave him the ‘spot putting’ technique at the start of the summer that enabled him to cash in on the driving like he has never been able to do before. After his sketchy tee to green performance on Saturday I pointed out on Sports on a Sunday Morning that he had one-putted nine of the final twelve greens in round three but didn’t notice at the time that his total with the putter was 27-27=25 for the first three days. Saturday wasn’t an aberration but a continuation.
What caught my attention more than any of his brilliance inside the ropes that week in Louisville was his presence inside the interview room. Listening and observing him on Saturday I turned to Golf World’s Jaime Diaz and remarked, “He’s not kid anymore. Rory has grown up.” He was always charming and refreshing after his major wins during his encounters with the press. There was gravity after this win.
The “era” guys were waiting for McIlroy as he sat on the dais with the Wannamaker Trophy to his right. Jason Sobel had already Tweeted to him the number of days to the Masters and a possible career Grand Slam. Another raised hand asked if he was thinking about making it four straight major wins at the US Open at Chambers Bay, wondering if he preferred “Rory Slam” to “McIl-slam.” But the ‘man’ from Northern Ireland would have none of such talk.
“I think I’ve got to take it one small step at a time. I think the two next realistic goals are the career Grand Slam, and trying to become the most successful European player ever. So Nick Faldo, most successful European ever in the modern era‑‑ Nick Faldo has six. Seve has five. Obviously the career Grand Slam coming up at Augusta in eight months time or whatever it is, they are the next goals.
And hopefully, when I achieve those, I can start to think about other things. But right now, that’s what my focus is. My focus is trying to complete this year Grand Slam and then move forward and try and become the most successful European ever, and hopefully in time, if I can do that, then I can move on and set different goals.”
There are still questions to be answered in constructing this run to greatness for McIlroy. He bristles at the reminder his biggest wins have come on soft slow courses. He needs to demonstrate that he can win when the driver doesn’t work as well and afford him the proximity advantage we have seen this past month. Even Tiger Woods raised the question of whether his bold play with the driver from the tee is sustainable. He still has the right side miss that seems to visit him when he goes off the rails. And he well answer each of those in time in the affirmative.
But eras in golf are like Ages in history, never recognized at the start and only labeled at he end. Ben Crenshaw once described Nick Price during his run of dominance in the early 90’s as a player in “full flight.” Whatever happened to the Nick Price Era?