US PGA Championship 2014 preview: Tiger Woods' pain is Rory McIlroy's gain as Ulsterman hits form of his life
As familiar injury problems beset Woods, the man from Northern Ireland heads to US PGA as red-hot favourite
Monday 04 August 2014
Elvis has left the building – driven away in agony, grimacing on a golf cart. It’s not how he imagined ending the show. Who knows when or if there will be a Comeback Special? Hopefully, if Tiger Woods does return to compete again, he won’t appear shoe-horned into a black leather jumpsuit.
While Woods is well into the back nine of his career, his Vegas years if you like, golf’s globetrotting circus – and the wider world of sport – must be hoping he isn’t forced to withdraw permanently from the game he has ignited since winning the Masters by 12 shots in 1997. Tiger is still Elvis and golf still needs him. Yet, if this is the end, remember that without Elvis, there would have been no John, Paul, George and Ringo – or Rory.
The 25-year-old Northern Irishman is back at World No 1, top of the bill and red-hot favourite to win his fourth major title this week at the US PGA Championship in Lexington, Kentucky. Having followerd up his Open triumph last month at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake with his first Word Golf Championship title, the Bridgestone Invitational, last Sunday at Firestone Country Club in Ohio, he is hoping to make it an impressive hat-trick by the weekend at Valhalla. The last player to win three in a row was Woods, who won the last two tournaments in 2007 and his first three in 2008.
While McIlroy was eating lunch with Garcia before spitting him out in the final round at Firestone, Woods was teeing off in the also-rans slots. A few hours later, there were pictures of him leaving on a jet plane and it is far from clear when the 14-time Major winner will be back in action. The 38-year-old said afterwards: “I just jarred it and it has been spasming ever since.”
Woods said the problem occurred playing his second shot from a difficult stance on the second hole but he played on, before aggravating it further teeing-off on the ninth.
Meanwhile, McIlroy was flying through his front nine and leaving Garcia is his slipstream. There were also sad pictures of Woods barely able to bend over to change out of his golf shoes – as McIlroy was making a strong case of stepping straight into them.
“It’s awesome,” McIlroy said of getting back to the No 1 spot for the first time since being knocked off his perch in March 2013. “It’s felt like a long time since I lost that No 1 spot, but it feels good to be back. Hopefully, I can keep it for a while,” he said.
“I grew up watching Tiger dominate in this tournament and dominate pretty much everywhere else he played.
“Yeah, I dreamed of one day trying to do something like that. I’m not comparing myself to him because he’s done this millions of times and this is only my first. So I’m not quite there yet.”
No he isn’t – three majors is a long way from Tiger’s 14 but Sunday felt like the passing over of the crown. The king is dead; long live the king. McIlroy does not possess the consistency that Woods possessed (the past tense is significant). Rory is more Seve than Tiger or Jack. He has always been streaky. But this hot-streak he is on has made comparisons with Woods in his prime inevitable.
“I can’t recall seeing anybody with this blend of rhythm and power with the exception of Tiger Woods in 2000,” said Brandel Chamblee, former tour player and now a respected TV analysts for the Golf Channel in the States. “He’s using his driver as a weapon much like Tiger used to.
“Going back to Tiger, because that’s what comparisons this kind of golf draws, wins did not sate Tiger. He did not look complacent – ever. He showed up the next week hungry. And that’s what Rory did (after the Open).” The bad news for his rivals this week is McIlroy believes he is playing close to his best.
“Mentally, I’m really sharp,” he said. “It’s the most comfortable I’ve ever felt trying to close out a tournament. I felt normal. I felt like it was the first or the second round. I just kept playing shot after shot after shot.”
And each one was a bullet to the heart of Garcia in particular, chief bridesmaid again just like he was at the Open. McIlroy is hammering Garcia – and everyone else – into the ground. He averaged 333 yards last week.
“It’s the foundation of my game,” McIlroy said. “When I drive it like that, I have a pretty good chance to win most weeks. Whenever I drive the ball well, I always put myself in positions where I can attack flags and try and make birdies.”
Like Woods used to do, McIlroy is making this backbreaking game look easy. “No, it’s not effortless,” McIlroy maintained. “But if I can keep making it look effortless, then that’s a good thing.”
The secret? “Just putting golf first, I guess, and really dedicating my whole time and everything I have into my career. I feel like I’ve just had this renewed focus and dedication and it seems to be paying off.”
This is just how Tiger used to sound before his injuries began to occur, one after the other: cruciate ligament, neck, back, angle, back, back... the list has grown and grown.
There is genuine concern for Tiger’s health and career. Whenever he next plays, every limp and facial expression will be analysed under the microscope.
“It concerns me because it’s an injury he’s tried to correct. This doesn’t bode well right now,” said Tom Watson, the USA’s Ryder Cup captain, who must now accept Woods will not make it to Gleneagles for the Ryder Cup, starting 26 September. “He’s going to be a champion and tough it out,” said Phil Mickelson. “We all want him back.”
McIlroy no doubt feels the same but there is a ruthless edge to this affable young man again. “I was licking my lips when I saw this place,” McIlroy said of Firestone after the torrential rain had cleared. “It’s soft, and these are my conditions. This is my bread and butter. This is what I really enjoy: ball through the air and target golf.”
It rained, too, before victories at Wentworth in May, then Hoylake wand Akron. The early forecast for Lexington, Kentucky? Rain. Bet the farm on McIlroy.
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