James Lawton: Sun sets on age of the Tiger as Rory provides new dawn

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The Independent Online

If you hung a wanted poster displaying the face of Tiger Woods on the old clubhouse door here the accompanying message would have to be one of the most forlorn in the history of modern golf.

It would have to ask if anyone had seen someone even remotely resembling this missing American who just a few years ago was arguably the most gifted and relentless sportsman of all time.

Equally certain is the answer no, not for a moment, not for a flicker of indecision, because while Woods currently hides behind a beard back home in Florida there is only one truly compelling figure left in his wake.

But whatever his brilliance, and boyish charm, Rory McIlroy is not Tiger and, without some remarkable change of personality, never will be. McIlroy is the new idol of golf but he hasn't changed the way we see it and think of it, he hasn't suggested a new game of dimensions that demand radical redesign of some of the world's great courses.

The Tiger created, or rather confirmed, the abyss when pain and, some cynics persist in believing, a possible bad case of lost nerve drove him out of the Players' tournament after the disastrous first nine that followed his failed winning drive a few weeks earlier at the US Masters.

Some American golf experts, including the Tiger's biographer, Tom Callahan, believe that McIlroy's extraordinary performance, the freedom of his game so soon after going down under the most ferocious pressure, may well have delivered an unshakeable blow to Woods' old belief that he could always find a way to win – and that he would indeed grind out the major titles that would carry him past Jack Nicklaus's all-time mark of 18.

"What we have to realise," says Callahan, "is that apart from Nicklaus, who was a freak, most great players have a relatively short window of success in majors. There was a span of 24 years between Nicklaus's first and last major. But Arnold Palmer won all his titles in 12 years and Hogan won his nine in seven years. The gap between Tiger's first and 14th titles is 12 years. Maybe his window has closed."

The point that is pushing so many within the game to believe the sun may indeed have set on the age of the Tiger is the apparent loss of his supreme asset – his ability to make 20-foot long putts and to save par when faced with a four-footer coming back. Peter Thomson, five-time Open winner, was once asked: "Is the Tiger the best player you have ever seen?"

His reply could not have been more emphatic. "Certainly not," said the Australian. "When people say that, they are wrong. What he is, is the best putter over 20 feet who ever lived. No one has ever done it like him. It is why he is where he is today – why nobody can really touch him."

The old script had the Tiger winning in a storm of acclaim. It had him turning Amen Corner to a great outpouring of acclaim. Instead, he three-putted six times, including the surrender of an eagle opportunity at the 15th which he would once have taken in the middle of a trance. It was the classic indication of lost certainties.

Tom Watson's time in the sun disappeared with the arrival of the "yips" and the great Hogan became so preoccupied by the vital need for accuracy on the greens that Sam Snead commented: "You could smoke a whole cigarette waiting for Hogan to take the putter back."

Some believe, even as the crowds flock around the heroic young McIlroy here, that if golf's new ascendant star has a weakness it is where the man he seeks to surpass was once so strong.

"Putting may prove to be the least perfect part of Rory's game," said one American for whom the likes of Nick Watney and Rickie Fowler hardly lift the sense that his countrymen are unlikely to break a run of five majors without a win, "but he has crossed the line which for so long made Americans reserved about almost every player who wasn't their own.

"At the US Open American fans cheered McIlroy so loudly he might have been their High School football team. He is a remarkable kid – a remarkable talent."

Meanwhile the Tiger grows his beard and stays in the shadows. For the moment no doubt he is being missed because it is not so easy adapting from another age of golf when there was always a field variously cowed and apprehensive – and with always a dominating source of apprehension. There was always the Tiger setting the challenge, announcing his strength.

Now there is Rory creating his own world, his own space. It only seems fragile when you look around for the one the Tiger used to inhabit.