James Lawton: Sun is setting on age of the Tiger but Rory provides the new dawn

With the less-than-magnetic Nick Watney their leading hope, and Woods licking his wounds, American golf looks in a sorry state

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 re-design of some of the world's great courses.

The Tiger created, or 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 a disastrous first nine holes that followed his failed winning drive a few weeks earlier at the US Masters.

Yes, McIlroy moved spectacularly into the Tiger's lost ground when he came back from his own broken place at Augusta, a last-round meltdown so harrowing that some hardened observers were almost forced to avert their eyes. His record-breaking victory in the US Open at Congressional Country Club would have been dazzling in any context but coming so soon after what some feared might be a permanent breaking of the spirit it was seen as nothing less than staggering.

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. The new theory is that what was once considered a formality has now become a massive ask, that at 35 and with a knee that has required four operations, and a troublesome Achilles tendon, Woods is now required to not only re-assemble his life after the traumatic exposure of his private life and subsequent divorce but also match the entire roll call of major achievement by the late Seve Ballesteros.

"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 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 is today – why nobody can really touch him."

However, that edge on immortality slipped critically this spring when McIlroy entered the period of trial that brought such extraordinary redemption in the US Open. Woods was the man who seemed to be ushering him into the bleakest moments of his brief but hugely promising career when he charged to a six-under front nine and had a fleeting share of the US Masters lead that had drained away from McIlroy.

Here the Americans, who have the admirable but hardly magnetic 30-year-old Nick Watney as their shortest-odds contender at 35-1, suspect that what followed may have broken the Tiger's self-belief – and that but for the calamity he might well have nerved himself into an attempt to stifle the extraordinary eruption of his most serious rival since his subjection of a whole generation of challengers.

The old script had the Tiger winning. 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.

At the apex of Tiger's glory he could go 200 holes without a three-putt. Now he was caught in an epidemic. It is the classic breaking point of so many of the great players, the announcement that the old certainties have flown away forever.

Tom Watson's time in the sun disappeared with the arrival of the yips and the great Ben 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 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.

"Rory has broken through as an international favourite – and not least in America. What he did in the US Open would have been remarkable even if he hadn't had the Augusta experience. So he has so much goodwill now and the way he is handling himself here has only entrenched that. You have to believe he is sorry Tiger isn't here because he seems to be somebody who wants to go out and beat anyone in front of him.

"When he said that none of his fans could want success more than he did it came out so naturally that it defined him – and the impact he has made on golf."

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 McIlroy creating his own world, his own space. It only seems fragile when you look around for the one that the Tiger used to inhabit.

American Dream: The US challenge for the Claret Jug

Phil Mickelson

The most decorated of the leading Americans, Mickelson has won the Masters three times and the PGA Championship once but he struggles with links golf.

Steve Stricker

44-year-old Stricker is the highest-ranked American golfer at No 5 in the world but has never won a major.

Nick Watney

The 30-year-old from California is a growing force. Has already won two PGA Tour events this year, including the AT&T National two weeks ago but will be tested in England.

Matt Kuchar

Ranked seventh in the world, Kuchar played in last year's Ryder Cup but has a modest majors record, with just two top-10 finishes.

Dustin Johnson

Johnson finished in the top 10 in two majors last year, and has won four PGA Tour events in the past three years.

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