One is 23 with a career full of potential waiting in front of him, the other is 37 and on a quest to recapture the greatness that many doubters think is behind him for good.
Individually, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are the two best players in the world right now. Together they possess the potential to create a rivalry that the sport hasn't seen in decades, and one that will bring out the best of two multiple major winners. The two are now on opposite ends of their careers but with plenty of greatness inside them.
In winning the Cadillac Championship at Doral this past weekend, Woods wasn't just great, he was filthy great, besting the finest field on Tour this year by two strokes, though it really wasn't that close. Displaying a confidence not seen since he was winning majors at a record clip, Woods put on a 27-birdie performance (www.pgatour.com) that saw him steady off the tee, dialed in with the irons and in a different zone on the greens from anyone else in the field.
The victory was Tiger’s second in just five starts and provided the most significant evidence that the World No. 2 has regained his dominant form and is prepared for a significant year.
For his part, Rory’s Doral performance wasn't nearly as stellar as he continues to work into his Nike weapons and overcome confidence issues. That said, anyone that does not expect the Irishman to reverse recent struggles and return to top form with the new equipment is kidding themselves; it’s not if, it’s when.
In fact, McIlroy showed signs of improvement over the weekend, posting a final round 7-under 65 that was just shy of the round of the day in challenging conditions at the Blue Monster. Rory already owns two major championships so he understands how to play on the big stage. He’ll have his game ready come The Masters in early April.
So the question here is not whether Rory and Tiger will be at their best come majors season. It's whether they will be at their best at the same time and whether we are on the verge of a serious rivalry involving Tiger for the first time in his remarkable career.
Given the roller-coaster nature of Woods’ career, which has included a trio of swing changes, multiple injuries and one really bad Thanksgiving night, a consistent battle with one significant player has been tough to come by.
There have been flashes with Phil Mickelson and brief moments with the likes Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, but when Woods was on his game, no one could get him. When he was off his game he generally got himself (save for Rich Beem and Y.E. Yang surprises).
Now with the third rise of his career seemingly upon us and the well-timed emergence of an incredibly talented McIlroy, that rivalry might well be on the precipice. And what a battle it could be with the youthful international star challenging the legendary veteran who hates to lose almost as much as he loves to win.
In many ways, a Tiger-Rory rivalry is more intriguing than two players in their prime battling each other from time to time. Back in the day, there was a young, confident Jack Nicklaus overtaking Tour icon Arnold Palmer. Then came Tom Watson to steal majors from the mature Golden Bear years later and often in dramatic fashion. In regard to Woods, there really wasn't an established great when he came on the scene so that dynamic was never in play. Those battles are still played out in retrospectives today.
Now, I know that those aforementioned Tiger doubters are saying Woods is not really “back” and can’t be a rival to Rory until he gets it done in a major. As it relates to the majors, it’s a valid point simply because Tiger himself has placed such an emphasis on the majors. He's won 14 of them that it can’t be ignored. My point is simply the form Woods has shown twice earlier this year demonstrates the type of game he needs to win a major, and the one he had 14 previous times.
Given that, it stands to reason that the world No. 1, the game’s best young player, will be as significant a factor in Woods winning five more majors during the next five years as Tiger himself. It took a Masters meltdown a couple years ago to set it up, but Rory is as strong late in majors at the age of 23 as Tiger was at that very same age. That game and confidence beyond his years was on display at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island this past summer (www.pgatour.com).
That gives Rory two major championships since Tiger last won one our years ago. There’s no doubt Rory has years to win many more majors. For Tiger, however, time is running out, but the desire still burns.
The question is, will the world’s top two golfers have to go through each other to claim the prizes they so dearly covet? If so, what a show that would be.
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