1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd and now 1st. That is the procession of Rory McIlroy’s last seven finishes on The European Tour. His three shot victory at the Dubai Desert Classic was his tenth victory on the tour at the venue where he captured his first win in 2009. He sits comfortably at number one in the official world rankings and is fresh from a 2014 in which he swept all before him.
Such dominance is unusual in most sports, although Rory’s form is distinctly Tiger-ish. It was suitably apt, therefore, that on the weekend that Rory re-asserted his superiority, the last man to sit atop the sport with such ease was scratching, chunking and slicing his way to his worst ever professional round, an 11-over-par 82 at the Phoenix Waste Management Open. Woods’ round included six bogies, two double bogies and a triple bogey as he ended round two dead last in a 132-man field. He has dropped to number 56 in the rankings and right now, his quest to overhaul Jack Nicklaus’ record of eighteen major wins, Woods needs four more, appears a long, long way away.
It seems now that the man most likely to have a chance of reaching that milestone is the 25-year-old from Holywood. This is, of course, a long way in the future, but McIlroy’s next main assignment is a chance to take a notable step on that path. He travels to Augusta for The Masters in eight weeks as favourite to win the green jacket for the first time, and with it complete a career grandslam, having already won all three other majors.
It is a course that to all intents and purposes should suit him, but one that he has a chequered history at. He has just one top-10 finish in his six visits, although that did come last year. Worse still, it is the site of his worst nine holes as a professional, when, in 2011, he took 43 shots to get home in the fourth round after leading the tournament from start to so close to finish. This meltdown cost him a first major championship and saw him end up tied fifteenth. It is an experience that he maintains has allowed him to be mentally tough when leading other majors but the true test of that will come if he finds himself in a similar position in April. What is irrefutable is that he is striking the ball better than anyone in the world and seems fully and remarkably unburdened by the pressure of being the world’s best player.
It is impossible not to draw parallels between Rory and Tiger. Both prodigiously talented, at their best unmatched in length and accuracy of the tee and able to summon reserves of determination and courage that make them seem unbeatable. Both are now signed to Nike and are among the best paid sportsmen in the world. Rory seems to be reaching that level of untouchable genius that used to be reserved just for Tiger, indeed speaking after challenging him in Dubai, Spanish golfer Pablo Larrazabal conceded that ‘in this form, Rory is unbeatable.’
That was the word that people used to whisper when Tiger walked into a locker room or a press conference. Then, one knee surgery, multiple tabloid scandals and one teary apology later, this mystique had gone. Tiger had lost his aura. One would have maybe feared that off course troubles would similarly shake the Northern Irishman, but so far he has remained resolute. He has dealt with disputes over the Ryder Cup, which in 2009 he described as an ‘exhibition’ and ‘not a huge goal,’ about who he will represent when golf returns to the Olympic games in 2016, a high profile relationship and public break-up with tennis superstar Caroline Wozniacki and most recently a big money court case with his former agent, Horizon Sports Management. Throughout all of this McIlroy has continued to wow crowds and win tournaments.
As one of the sport’s idols, perhaps its greatest ever idol, begins to slip away into mediocrity, the curly-haired, bouncy boy from Holywood, Northern Ireland is ready to take his place. As it stands, it would be a bold man to bet against him winning at Augusta and taking a seismic step into the pantheon of golfing, nay sporting, superstars.