US Open Gold 2011: Rory McIlroy's Victory, a Historical Perspective

Lou VozzaAnalyst IJune 20, 2011

BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 19:  Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland poses with the trophy after his eight-stroke victory on the 18th green during the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 19, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

There's no doubt that Rory McIIroy is the most exciting thing that's happened to golf outside of Tiger Woods in a long, long time.  And his stunning historic romp at Congressional hardly looks like a fluke, when you consider his early round performances at the British Open last year and the Master's tournament just this April.

Of the many records he set this week, one stands out to me as the most important. He's now the youngest ever to win the U.S. Open.  This puts him in elite historic company.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of articles comparing the greatest golfers of all time. Here's a link to the final article, which itself contains links to the previous five articles in the series.

I came to the conclusion that only six players deserve consideration as the greatest player of all time.  They are (in historic order): Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Of these six golfers, four won the U.S. Open between the ages of 22 and 24: Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.  Vardon won his first of six British Open titles at age 26.  Hogan was the only late bloomer, winning his first major at age 34 and his first U.S. Open at age 36.

So, in light of this historic marker and given the drama of Rory's almost unprecedented margin of victory, it is not unreasonable to project him as a possible proto-superstar on the level of a Hagen or Nicklaus.

One note of caution, however.  Five of my big six historic golfers NEVER choked up a lead.  I'm not saying they never lost a lead or lost a big tournament.  I'm saying they never COLLAPSED or HUMILIATED THEMSELVES in a tournament—EVER.  

The sole exception was Hogan, who in 1942 had a one shot lead on the 72nd tee at the Masters. He hit the fairway, put his approach shot to 10 feet, then three putted to fall into a tie with Byron Nelson, who won the next day in an 18-hole playoff.

This is one of the reasons, although not the main reason, that Hogan was eliminated from my competition for the title of "greatest golfer of all time."

Rory's collapse at the Master's this year was an implosion of epic proportions, far beyond Hogan's three putt.  He woke up Sunday morning in first place by four shots, then shot an 80 to finish in 15th place.  Even Greg Norman managed a 78 and finished second after his 1996 collapse.

I know it seems tough to single out this stain on McIIroy's permanent record, but the bar should be set very high for determining who is the best player to have ever played the game.  

Right now, I personally see it as a positive for McIlroy's reputation.  What guts it must take to recover from his Master's trauma and produce this week's performance.  

However, in the long march of history, I'm afraid on this issue, he will come up short.

One final note: One record fell Sunday that no one's talking about.  And that's the fact that Tiger Wood's no longer holds the best historic score in relation to par in all four majors—perhaps his most incredible record.  

Nonetheless, Tiger's Pebble Beach margin of victory was still substantially larger than Rory's (minus-15 to minus-eight) and Rory clearly benefited from much more benign conditions.  

Twenty players finished under par at Congressional vs. none at Pebble except Tiger (Els was second at plus-three).