(Cue the swoons, handwringing, and declarations that he’s done)
Yes, he did sign a big endorsement deal (reported upwards of $250 million) with Nike in the offseason. I myself watched the laser-light show produced by Nike to introduce Rory as their newest “athlete” in January at the Abu Dhabi Championship (where he missed the cut).
And now here we are. Rory has new (expen$ive) clubs and apparel and shoes and golf balls and everything from Nike. His statistics from tee to green are very similar to last year when he rattled off three wins in four starts beginning with the eight shot rout at the PGA. The biggest problem he’s having on the course now is putting. He is not making nearly as many putts as he did last year. But he’s streaky. A cursory look at his golf swing reveals that he’s a feel player, not a technician. That leads to ups and downs; hot streaks where he will blitz the field and ruts when he seemingly has no answers (as he admitted to the media after his first round 78 at the Memorial).
But that’s where the difference lies for Rory. We need to adjust our standards a bit here. Rory McIlroy IS NOT Tiger Woods. Woods is a once in a generation (maybe lifetime) talent. He is already the second greatest player of all time if he never hits another competitive golf shot in his life.
It’s easy (and lazy) to look at McIlroy and say “he’s the next Woods.” Forgive me for being rude here but, shut up with that. Just shut up. I know that Rory has won two major championships by eight shots each. I know that he won two majors at a younger age than Woods. I know that he has nine wins between the PGA and European Tours already. I know all of that.
He has also missed more cuts in his six-and-a-half year professional career than Woods has in his 17-plus years as a pro. McIlroy has also missed 3 cuts in majors, the same total as Woods. Aside from his two major victories, Rory has not posted another top-10 in a major since 2011. A hallmark of Woods’ career is being in contention at nearly every major he plays.
I have no doubt that McIlroy will carry golf once Woods has passed his prime in the same way that Watson, Ballesteros, Norman and Faldo did after Jack Nicklaus’ domination ended. But in the same way that no individual in the aforementioned foursome can hold a candle to Nicklaus’ accomplishments Rory cannot and will not match the career of Tiger Woods.
In the 70s and 80s there was an unofficial search for “The Next Nicklaus”. The label was given to hot-shot young players like Ben Crenshaw, Eddie Pearce (read Jason Sobel’s remarkable story on Pearce), Hal Sutton and Greg Norman. Crenshaw and Norman did become Hall of Fame players, Norman having held the number one ranking for 331 weeks. When compared with his contemporaries though, Norman has fewer major championships than Faldo, Ballesteros, Stewart and Price. Moreover the total number of PGA Tour wins for the “Next Nicklaus” foursome is 53 and they combined for 5 major championships. Nicklaus alone had 73 Tour wins and the all-time record of 18 professional majors.
It is simply unfair to expect Rory McIlroy to meet that standard when history tells us not only is it not likely, it simply does not happen.
For the “Yeah but –” crowd, here is some more evidence.
Starting with Bobby Jones, who dominated the 1920s then won the Grand Slam in 1930 and promptly retired from competitive golf at 28. Jones’ standard was 13 majors (7 professional and 6 amateur). The next crop of great players came in the late 1930s and bloomed in the 40s and 50s. I am referring to the American Triumvirate of Nelson, Hogan and Snead.
Nelson won two majors in the late 30s and three more in the 40s before retiring to be a cattle rancher. Nelson never won the British Open and only played in it once before his retirement, finishing tied for fifth. Nevertheless his five majors and lack of a career grand slam do not stand up to the record of Jones even with his remarkable 1945 season of 18 total wins and 11 in a row.
Snead captured seven majors between 1942 and 1954 and amassed the most wins in PGA Tour history. He bettered Nelson on that front and also won the British Open in 1946, the first played after World War II. However, Snead has a glaring hole in his resume as well; he never won the US Open, despite several chances to do so. While his longevity is perhaps the best in the history of golf, he cannot be held in the same category as Jones.
Ben Hogan is the only player among these three to merit any comparison with Jones. He did win the four majors of his day, including the only British Open he played in 1953. Speaking of ’53, that season is often compared with the 1930 Grand Slam season of Jones because Hogan won the three majors he entered and five of six total tournaments (he did not play the PGA due to a scheduling conflict with the British Open). Hogan also had more PGA Tour wins than Nelson, 64, fourth all-time. The shortcomings for Hogan are that 1) he was a late bloomer, not winning on the Tour until 1938, and no individual wins until 1940. He did not win a major until 1946 at the age of 34. The car accident in 1949 also curtailed his playing schedule, but he was certainly productive in the majors, winning six after the accident.
It was not until Jack Nicklaus came along, winning the US Amateur in 1959 and 1961, then the US Open for his first professional win in 1962 at the age of 22, that a challenger to Jones’ stature as the greatest of all-time would be found. Nicklaus passed Jones mark of 13 majors (amateur and professional) at the 1973 PGA Championship.
Nicklaus’ dominant decade was the 70s; Tiger Woods won three US Amateurs in the 90s and turned professional in 1996. His dominant decade was the 2000s (12 majors, 56 PGA Tour wins), thirty years after Nicklaus’ prime.
As history tells us, in terms of career accomplishments, Rory McIlroy is not and will not be the next Tiger Woods. He might be the next Tom Watson or Ben Hogan but he is not the next Nicklaus or Woods.
Furthermore, McIlroy himself does not fit the profile of “heir apparent” like other contemporary athletes. Woods himself has made it clear that his goal is to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors. He even had a list of Nicklaus’ record on his wall as a child.
When we look to other athletes we see a similar goal. Both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have stated that they intend to match or pass Michael Jordan’s six NBA Championships. McIlroy has not made such a claim. Chalk it up to humility if you like, but it clearly is not something he wants to talk about, and perhaps does not see as a goal. That is not to say that Rory won’t try to pass Jack or Tiger’s record, or that he doesn’t want to, but that he simply has not publically stated this as his goal.
While this is starting to sound like a pile-on of Rory McIlroy, that is not my intention. I am merely trying to add perspective to the judgment of his play. He is not on the level of Tiger Woods, historically. McIlroy will be in the Hall of Fame easily, possibly meeting the criteria before he turns 30, as Woods did. But that does not mean that he is on the same level as Woods in golf’s history.
If McIlroy compiled 50 career wins (between both tours) and won 10 majors he would be in the pantheon of golf with Jones, Hogan, Nicklaus and Woods. But he would not be in the conversation of greatest of all time.
I will reiterate that it is simply not fair, and also lazy, to judge McIlroy on the standard of Woods. I think all golf observers believe that his current funk will be sorted out. As a matter of fact, I would not be at all surprised if McIlroy won the US Open in two weeks or another major championship. But if he fails to do that, I won’t question his game or whether he made a mistake switching clubs, or his new management company or if his personal life is on rocks.
I say we let the kid play. He rebounded nicely this week at Memorial after the opening 78 with a solid 69 in difficult weather. But perspective is key when holding him to the standard of Tiger Woods.