For the last 16 years, the golf world has assumed that Tiger Woods was on the certain path to break the game’s ultimate record.
Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships has become the gold standard of just how greatness is measured against in the early part of the 21st century and Woods public obsession with trying to break that mark has probably added to the legend of Nicklaus and that mark more so than when Jack actually was winning majors. Woods drive, however, has been stalled since defeating Rocco Mediate in that epic U.S. Open Playoff in 2008 at Torrey Pines. Either from injuries, personal issues, or trying to figure out his game while dealing with these things, the assault on Nicklaus’ record 18 majors has been stuck on 14 ever since.
In that time frame, a new wunderkind has come from Northern Ireland and has won two majors of his own by such mind-boggling numbers, that we have no choice but to compare him to Woods and Nicklaus.
As crazy as it may sound, is Rory McIlroy going to be the one that breaks golf’s most hallowed record?
McIlroy’s destruction of Kiawah last week by eight shots was so impressive in its scope and depth that it caught the golf world in utter disbelief.
With his win, McIlroy became the second youngest player to win a professional major—four months younger than Woods when he won the 1999 PGA—and just slightly older than Nicklaus at the 1963 Masters.
Comparing Rory to Jack may seem silly, but they both dominated their games at an early age. While Jack was a very accomplished amateur player—twice winning the United States Amateur and almost winning the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver—McIlroy was a pro on the European Tour by the time he turned 19. McIlroy won for the first time in 2009 in Dubai about a year after turning pro. Both McIlroy and Nicklaus were blessed with a great raw talent.
When Jack was Rory’s age, he had extreme length. In today’s standards maybe not, but in the day and age of persimmon wood drivers and steel-shafted irons, Nicklaus was able to drive the ball 300 yards and play with irons that were much less forgiving than today’s graphite and titanium clubs used today.
For McIlroy’s height and build, he can power the ball long and straight. He has also shown that he can putt the ball from 15-20 feet when he is on like very few in the business. When Rory won last year at Congressional at the Open, the ease of his victory and that second place was still eight-under par. Never mind the fact he lead wire-to-wire, he won a United States Open that played anything like an Open.
If McIlroy had not collapsed last year on Sunday at Augusta, we would have a player going into the Open Championship next year with a chance at a career grand slam at just 24. Yeah, the Nicklaus comparisons are valid.
What Nicklaus did over the course of his career was adjust his game as his body changed. By the time he won his last major at the 1986 Masters, he was not the long bomber he was 20 years prior. He had become a better putter and just was a master with his irons.
The pressure that Rory will face will be different.
Outside of keeping healthy and trying to stay motivated while being insanely rich, McIlroy will find his career split between two shores. Rory will have to keep some sort of presence on the European Tour and those wins will never be perceived as equal to whatever he wins here. He also would be the first European-born player to ever win a career grand slam and would become Europe’s all-time grand slam winner if he wins eight. A 10th major would give him the all-time record of any player born outside America.
As his stature grows, the pressures he will face from overseas will continue to grow.
Also, like Nicklaus with Arnold Palmer all those years ago, Rory will feel the heat here from Tiger Woods’ and Phil Mickelson’s fans that will see the younger McIlroy take accolades they feel should be Woods’ or Phil’s. Nicklaus was resented for years by casual fans because they perceived he robbed Palmer of championships.
Winning 19 majors is an absolutely incredible feat. It took Jack 24 years to win 18. While passing Jack is by no means certain for McIlroy or anyone, for that matter, he has put himself in the position of receiving that scrutiny. How he handles it will go a long way in determining just how close he gets.
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