ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – A couple of weeks ago Dan O’Neill of the Post Dispatch had a piece contrasting Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods careers. It was a stereotypical analysis based on tournament wins and backtracked to include Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and even Bobby Jones as the elites of their time. These number crunching comparisons leave short the considerations of the players in favor of their results.
Sports has always looked to figures who changed the game they played, not only by their results but by their manner. Bob Gibson forced baseball to lower the pitchers mound after his 1968 season with its 1.12 ERA. Bobby Orr rewrote the definition of hockey defenseman when he put up consecutive seasons like 1970 and ‘71 with blue line point totals of 120 and 139.
Nicklaus was that sort of player in golf. Nicklaus not only brought his length into the game, but with his more upright swing plane, he influenced generations of players who learned to play the game in the air. Prior to the Golden Bear, green fronts were open in the classic course design. With Nicklaus style ball flights, newer courses demanded forced carries into many greens.
When Tiger Woods burst onto the scene with his 1997 win at Augusta, it was again his length that many took as the signature of his game. By the time his Tiger Slam was complete the concept of Tiger-proofing golf courses was the next new wave in golf. In 1999, the year before Woods four straight majors, Augusta National measured under 7000 yards. Today it plays in the neighborhood of 7500.
Tiger-proofing turned 350-yard par-4’s into drivable, 400-yard par-4’s into short and 500-yard par-4’s as acceptable. What was lost in the revolution is the length explosion didn’t hurt Woods nearly as much as the players of moderate length who could no longer compete consistently at the new distances. The Corey Pavin’s and Jay Haas’s of golf were pushed so far back from the greens as to marginalize their opportunities to win.
While the Woods evolution in golf had an impact, it was a faulty analysis of Woods that left him unfazed by the changes for much of his career. Woods was separation long among his early peers, but that wasn’t what made Tiger so dominant. Lost in the fascination with his length was the realization that he was the greatest escape artist in the PGA since Ballesteros.
Tiger’s creativity and recovery skills allowed him to turn, what for others might be 73’s, into 68’s. Even as an amateur Woods could spin straw into gold as he did in 1994 against Trip Kuehne with his Amateur win at the Players Club. No player, including Nicklaus, ever combined those two talents in one package. Tiger could beat you at both ends of the hole.
Which brings us to the current dominant player in professional golf, Rory McIlroy.
Like Nicklaus and like Woods the conversation about Rory begins on the teeing ground. In a time when 300 is the mean and 340 is the routine, McIlroy, on form, is unchallenged with the driver. Others can match his length but not his effective use of that length. McIlroy admits he is pretty much a one gear player, but that one gear drives his engine better than anybody else.
Comparing Woods and McIlroy without looking at their games is like comparing today’s Golden State Warriors to the Kobe/Shaq Los Angeles Lakers. They may both eventually have NBA titles in common but the similarity ends there. With the Warriors you worry about Stephen Curry at the three-point line. With the Lakers you worried about Shaquille O’Neal and the three-second lane.
McIlroy is, at this stage of his career, very much cut from the Nicklaus model without the revolutionary impact. The Irishman and Nicklaus could overpower a course from the tee. At the moment Nicklaus was more predictable week in and week out and remained that way for three decades. Jack also was a much better iron player than we have seen from Rory to date.
But neither McIlroy nor Nicklaus are in the same family as Woods when it comes to magic. Nicklaus spent a career looking for a guru who could transform him around the greens. On the greens he possessed Tiger’s flare for the dramatics and both were seemingly automatic inside ten-feet when it mattered.
Rory’s highlight reel, with eleven Tour wins and four majors, is short of Verne Lundquist calls like “In your life have you seen anything like that.” He has ratcheted up his putting as he has continued to work with Dave Stockton. His final nine charge at Valhalla last year at the PGA was not only impressive for the full shots he played to fuel his come from behind win, but also his ability to convert those opportunities with the putter in hand.
Still in his mid-twenties, McIlroy is an unfinished product, with time to fill in the spaces.
But even allowing for those enhancements, what Rory will likely never become is more than an evolution of the game he inherited from Woods, rather than the revolutionary figures Nicklaus and Woods brought to the game.
To my way of thinking that’s the comparison that matters most when talking about history.
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