As the eyes of the globe settle on Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England, a game of king of the hill is set to get underway.
Much to the chagrin of most, and especially the brass who run the PGA, it is not Tiger Woods atop the hill as the final rounds of the 2014 Open Championship get going.
In fact, he's lucky to even be in the picture.
No, the king is Rory McIlroy, hot on the heels of history. Those behind him make for an interesting bunch, rounding out two rounds this weekend that qualify as can't-miss action, something that has not come along very often as of late.
The Unraveling of Tiger Woods
Primarily responsible for the sport's dip in popularity because he alone drives ratings, Woods was back and confident on Thursday for Round 1. It was a triumphant return, to say the least, as he at one point hit on five birdies in six holes and ended with 10 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens.
Many were inclined to point to Woods being back to form, as ESPN Stats & Info astutely showcased:
The brief stint with competitiveness would end, though, on Day 2. Woods began Friday with a double bogey, followed up with a bogey and even shot a triple bogey on 17.
In fact, his only birdie came on the final hole, a clutch, tournament-saving shot that saved him from missing the cut.
For just a brief moment, Woods had the look of a player who was finally healthy, which in turn allowed him to get back to his dominant ways. Except historically speaking, this is the same charade he has put on in England since 2007, as ESPN.com's Bob Harig perfectly laid out in digestible form:
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As someone who has not won a major in six years, has not played in one in 11 months and entered the tournament with just two serious rounds under his belt over the course of the last four months, Woods has a lot to answer for if he is going to buck trends that date back six or more years.
It's on Tiger to make the proper adjustments over the course of the next two days. Health doesn't seem to be an issue at this point, so fans would be wise to pay close attention to whether or not he can shake off the rust and distance himself from the pack.
If not, the latest excuse is that Woods is recovering from back surgery. Not a horrible one at that, but Thursday showed he is capable of dominant golf once more. Something has to give.
Rory McIlroy vs. Himself
Meanwhile, McIlroy shot up the hill and surrounded himself with castle walls no ladder could reach.
Two rounds of 66 later, and the closest person to him on the leaderboard is four strokes back. The first round surely exorcised some demons for the No. 8 player in the world, as he entered the tournament a combined under-57 in first rounds, but nine-over in second rounds.
While great, not all of the demons are out of the way for McIlroy just yet. Check out some staggering numbers compiled by ESPN.com's Sam Strong:
At the 2011 Masters, McIlroy took a 2-shot lead into the weekend -- and a 4-shot lead into Sunday's final round -- before collapsing down the stretch and carding an 8-over 80 on the tournament's final day.
At the 2011 U.S. Open, held at Congressional, he carried a 6-shot lead into the weekend … and never looked back, eventually extending the final margin to 8 strokes (he finished the tournament at 16 under par).
So while 13 birdies and one bogey through 36 holes is mightily impressive, McIlroy also has some historical tendencies to overcome as the globe focuses in on his quest.
Because it is most certainly a quest, one that would plant his name firmly in the record books. Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel has the details:
If Rory McIlroy wins Open he joins Tiger Woods & Jack Nicklaus as only players since 1934 to win 3+ majors by age 25.— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) July 18, 2014
If McIlroy can keep averaging a ridiculous 333 yards off the tee, then it's hard to fathom he doesn't run away with the tournament over the weekend, as other golfers have been quick to admit, per Mike O'Malley of Golf Digest:
Rickie Fowler after a 69, on Rory McIlroy: "When his driver is on, he's almost unstoppable."— Mike O'Malley (@GD_MikeO) July 18, 2014
Just 36 holes stand between McIlroy and history, but his personal history lurks in the background, too.
McIlroy is so far in front and Woods gets so much attention that the rest of the field can certainly be classified as sleepers at this point.
Dustin Johnson is in second place after shooting 65 on Friday, the day's best and a mark that ties his best ever at a major. Provided he keeps that momentum going, one can make the case that Johnson can steal the No. 1 spot if McIlroy falters.
Sergio Garcia, a man who owns seven top-10 finishes at the event, is another name to watch should the dominoes fall in his favor. They certainly have so far, as an eagle on the second hole proved.
Rickie Fowler also remains in the mix and seems destined to get over the hump after already finishing in the top five at the first two majors of the season. In other words, as Adam Sarson of The Score notes, McIlroy certainly cannot afford to take his foot off the gas:
Guys like Johnson, Fowler, Sergio, Schwartzel, etc all have huge "go low" potential. Don't think he can afford to sit back.— Adam Sarson (@Adam_Sarson) July 18, 2014
As has been the case with all of the majors this year, there is a thick pack of contenders still hanging around, just waiting to get sorted out.
This means that a complete 180 can happen over the weekend and produce an unexpected winner, so casual and hardcore fans alike should have a vested interest in the outcome with so much on the line.