McIlroy has talent, but also support. The combination makes his chase of Woods possible.
The whispering stopped. The hyping started.
As does the smiling.
Rory McIlroy's weekend, in a nutshell.
The golf distanced McIlroy from past collapses. McIlroy won convincingly at Congressional, pinning a 16-under(-par) and doubling the eight-under by runner-up Jason Day. He shot the lowest score (268) of any golfer at any Open ever. He shaved to 13-under after 17 holes in the second round, the best standing for anyone any point in Open history.
Goodbye, St. Andrews 2010. Thanks for playing, ghosts of 2011 Augusta.
But more so than what he shook—haunting imagery and sleepless nights—McIlroy earned.
Respect. Adoration. Support.
More than the oversized chalice, more than the prefix, more than the $1.44 million purse, that's the biggest prize from this Open. Rory McIlroy won over the public and his peers.
That's huge, because with success comes pressure, in this case, being sized up as the next Tiger Woods. Atlas, meet globe. McIlroy's next 15 to 20 years will be defined by how his back holds up under that weight.
But McIlroy’s got help (at least with his head game).
Is McIlroy the next Tiger Woods?
Can you feel the warmth glowing off the page? Rory does.
Don't underscore the value in fraternity. McDowell, as Irish as coffee with Bailey's, shares common ground with a guy often 3,000-plus miles from home, a distance that makes your nose runny with home sickness.
As does Padraig Harrington, another countryman and confidant and friend to carry him.
If McIlroy is the ring bearer, McDowell and Harrington and Co. are his fellowship.
"I think he has probably the most talent I've ever seen from a golfer." That, from your world No. 1, England's Luke Donald.
Donald might be wrong. Remember, Tiger was Tiger before he won. The titles—1997 Master's champ and those that followed—only validated the hype. They didn't spark it, not like McIlroy's second career win (that's all) did.
But Donald wasn't not sensationalizing or reaching or chirping for the sake of chirping. A pro since 2001, Donald has seen countless more holes of Tiger than McIlroy. To go out on that limb, this early, Donald must've been impressed.
You can compare his with other greats' career arcs. At a blip over 22 years old, McIlroy's first major win came 10-and-a-half months after Woods', but three-and-a-half months before Jack Nicklaus'.
But talent is overrated. It's a prerequisite—you're not winning with a shot as crooked as Owen Wilson's nose in the Chicago statehouse—but it's not the end game.
More important than your stroke is your focus. Your resolve. Your amnesia. Controlled competitive chaos.
Remember, we're talking about golf, a game more micromanaged than a sorority girl's wardrobe decisions. Every shot is scrutinized—which club? how far? where's the break?—and make-or-break. It's the most mental game on the planet.
It's also the most social. Baseball stadiums have two dugouts. Golf only has one clubhouse. Lots of time for awkward silences and one-word answers.
Tiger Woods knows that. Now, with his personal life imploding, body eroding and a procession of disappointment on the course. And always, really, looking distinguishably antsy and uncomfortable in the spotlight.
Every Woods interview felt unnatural like the Road Hole at St. Andrews. Every wardrobe decision was TI-89 calculated.
At times like those, it would've been nice to have a friend. A buddy. A shouting pad. A pick-me-up, personified.
But he didn't. Woods was abrasive and combative and was buried for it. He feuded up and down the pecking order with recognizables in Phil Mickelson and Rory Sabbatini, and the guy who introduced him to his ex-wife and golfs occasionally, Jesper Parnevik.
He was standoffish with the media. Nobody complained about the buzz (while it lasted), but Woods was received like tax documents on vacation.
The animosity lingers, compensated as the affection for McIlroy blossoms. You saw it this past weekend, with NBC broadcasters drooling over McIlroy's gentlemanly gamesmanship and jabbing the B-52 F-bomber.
Everyone's warm when it comes to McIlroy. And will be, even when it goes south.
McIlroy might slump. He might recede. He might repeat final rounds of 60 at St. Andrews (2010) and Augusta (2011). He might not even pan out, at least not in comparison to speculation.
But McIlroy will always have a safety net to catch him. That alone puts him on more solid footing than most, especially Woods, who McIlroy chases with a perfect swing and a boyish smile.
And everyone smiles back.