Even Tiger Woods believes Rory McIlroy's swing is better than his was at the same age. The former world No 1 admitted as much last night while casting further doubt on his participation at the Open Championship in two weeks' time.
Woods, who has "not hit any balls, only putted" since withdrawing from the Players seven weeks ago, was as impressed as anyone by the young Ulsterman's eight-shot win at Congressional 10 days ago. So impressed that he was prepared to agree with the assessment of his friend Mark O'Meara.
"I totally agree with Mark," said Woods, who was 21 when he won his first major, the Masters, by a record 12 shots. "Rory's swing is definitely better than mine was at the same age. He needs to continue to work on it, but he's still only 22. It's fun to see someone of that age playing the way he did and handling it the way he did after [losing at] Augusta."
Added Woods: "That was some seriously good playing... To do that at the US Open, to be that aggressive the entire time, it was cool to watch."
Of course, what would be even "cooler" to watch would be Woods and McIlroy in a battle of the generations, although it seems the world will have to wait for the duel. Woods is renowned for hugging the cards to his chest, but still his words would not have inspired any hope on the Kent coast. There are only 11 days until the field assembles and it now must be long odds-on that Woods will miss two majors in a row for the second time in 15 years as a pro.
Woods has no timetable for a return and is determined to break the habit of a career by "being smart" and not trying to play through the pain barrier in pursuit of a 15th major. "I'm going to come back when I'm 100 per cent... there's going to be no 50-50 call this time," said Woods, before outlining how he made a mistake by risking his left knee and Achilles injury at the Players. "I'm going to learn my lesson from Sawgrass [where he withdrew after nine holes]. I tried to push it too hard and hurt myself and that's why I'm going to be different this time."
Woods is no longer using a crutch or wearing a protective boot and said he would be "very surprised" if he did not play again in 2011. But, as signified by the revelation that he has so far only visited the putting green, his rehabilitation is still in its very early stages. "Every day it's gotten better. But still it's not as strong or as explosive as I'd like it to be," he said. Asked directly about when he will make a decision on the Open, he said: "We're playing it by ear... I would not go over there to show up. I would go to win the tournament."
Woods made his comments at the AT&T National in Philadelphia, an event hosted by his charitable foundation and which he is therefore attending in a promotional role. While he was exceedingly complimentary concerning McIlroy he was not about to hand over the baton to his young rival. Indeed, despite a 19-month losing run, he insisted that Jack Nicklaus's record haul of 18 majors remains as firmly in his sights as it ever did.
"I'm 35, I'm not 65 – I've still got some years ahead of me and I feel they will be my best years," said Woods.