Rory McIlroy just wants to win anything again. Tiger Woods needs to win a major title again.
As the last major of the year looms, both men, looking to overcome their own unique issues, face enormous pressure heading into the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
Like Muhammad Ali boasting “I am the greatest” or Michael Jordan, the all-time smack-talker, wagging a finger in his opponent’s face after draining another jumper, Tiger has made a blatant public statement that he will surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.
Is there any greater pressure than that?
Tiger is coming off a dominating victory at Firestone timed perfectly as he gets ready for the subsequent major event. But, he has let opportunities slip at majors where he has had difficulty playing well on the weekend. Furthermore, seven times he's won just before a major championship, but only once has he converted it into a win.
Rory is coming off a series of poor outings, as he struggles to regain the prowess that brought him the PGA Championship title last year and made him the golfer to beat. He is definitely fighting his own demons.
This was supposed to be a year in which Tiger and Rory would match up against each other in a classic rivalry pitting youth against experience. Instead, it has turned into a year of difficulty for Rory and revival for Tiger.
But, make no mistake about it, Tiger faces the greater pressure as he looks to end a five-year drought in major victories—five years of personal, professional and physical issues as he looked to climb back to the position of best in the world.
And, more importantly, as he attempted to live up to his personal quest of beating Nicklaus.
Rory merely seeks to hit his drives straight again. In just the last week, he has gone from 128th to 143rd in driving accuracy. He just wants to hit a green in regulation, a category in which he dropped from 14th to 59th. He just needs to score (he ranks 33rd in scoring average) and finish in the big money (he is 46th on the money list) again.
Remember, Rory is only 24, and his great success has come early in what should be a very long career. Everyone has slumps, and this may just be Rory’s.
Even more unnerving for Rory may be that his inability to hit fairways and greens has been exacerbated by his own admitted brain freeze.
But, he is not the first superstar to struggle with fame and fortune, and while that is obviously messing up his game, history tells us that Rory will emerge from this slump an even better player.
A win at Oak Hill would be fantastic for him, especially after having played so miserably in the British Open, where he missed the cut; the U.S. Open, where he tied for 41st place; and the Masters, where he tied for 25th.
He surely wants to show the world he can play golf at the highest level again, and the strain that goes with that must be great.
He wants to regain the form that allowed him to lay waste to the pro circuit last year, winning four times, including his second major title at the PGA Championship. He even overcame a midyear dip, too, eventually topping the list in money earned, scoring average, top-10 finishes and many other categories.
The world was his oyster, and he had cracked it open to reveal the biggest and shiniest of pearls. Nike gave him a new deal. Sports Illustrated named him the second-most marketable player in the world. He was the No. 1 player in the world rankings. All before 2013 began.
Then the oyster shut, the pearls scattered and Rory was left with nothing in his hands but dust. It has led to a year without a victory and a very visible frustration with his game.
You call that pressure?
In the last five years since his win at Torrey Pines when he won the U.S. Open in a playoff while playing on a broken leg, Tiger’s life has been pressure-packed: a fall from grace due to extramarital affairs, leading to a divorce and the loss of millions of dollars in endorsements; numerous recuperations from surgeries and injuries; the physical and emotional effort to regain his swing and putting stroke, and, thus, his competitive edge.
Now, it looks like Tiger, at 37, has turned the corner and put those five long years behind him. He is having a remarkable year marked by his return to the No. 1 spot in the world rankings and five victories, most notably his seven-stroke win at Firestone. Statistically, he holds the No. 1 position in scoring average, money and FedEx Cup points.
More importantly, he has been finding the hole with increased regularity and confidence and is listed fourth in strokes gained-putting on the PGA Tour.
Sure, he has won five non-majors this year, including the Bridgestone Invitational, which featured a who’s who of the best players in the world. Yet, we have to wonder about Tiger’s record in the last six majors in which he has averaged 11-under par in the first two rounds and 19-over par in the last two rounds.
Can he break the spell at Oak Hill and overcome his weekend demons? That’s what we call pressure, Rory.
Who is feeling more pressure at the PGA Championship?
Even with all of the wins, the great play, the return to the No. 1 ranking in the world, there is only one thing that truly matters to Tiger, and that is winning his 15th major. He has been stuck at 14 for so long, it is amazing that he has been able to return to such prominence.
Yet, like Superman, if he cannot leap higher than the tallest building in a single bound, he is just a guy in glasses.
No matter how many wins he has had, Tiger acknowledges the importance and the pressure associated with winning at Oak Hill. As he told Doug Ferguson of The Associated Press (via USA Today), ''I think winning one major championship automatically means you had a great year. Even if you miss the cut in every tournament you play, you win one (major), you're part of history.”
Sure, Rory has a lot to live up to as he strives to regain some of the excellence of the past two years, but it is a mere pittance when compared to the stress, strain and pain of being Tiger Woods.
Ultimately, there remains one big difference between the two stars: Tiger thrives on pressure; Rory has yet to show he can.