Brian Viner: Magical McIlroy has picked up Tiger's baton to leave USA seriously hacked off

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Whether or not Rory McIlroy goes on to win this US Open, his remarkable opening round of 65 on Thursday, all the more creditable given that it was the 22-year-old's first effort in a major championship since the horror show at Augusta, confirmed him as the most thrillingly watchable golfer in the world.

It surely won't be too long before he compounds this with official status as the world's No 1 player, and pleasing as it currently is to have a pair of Brits in Luke Donald and Lee Westwood vying for top place in the rankings, it will be better for the sport to have its most exciting practitioner as top dog. After all, "exciting" is not an adjective anyone would use to describe Donald, not without the help of hallucinogens.

During Thursday afternoon's coverage, Sky Sports found three American spectators who declared themselves big McIlroy fans, one of them going so far as to venture that he loves seeing "great players from overseas doing well in our big tournaments". It wasn't immediately clear whether the guy had been handed a script, or Sky had simply chanced upon the one American at the Congressional Country Club with a generous world view. Either way, it's a dime to a dollar that he wasn't speaking for the vast majority of his countrymen, who seem to be getting increasingly hacked off with the tendency of foreigners to win golf's greatest prizes.

At least until tomorrow, all four of the game's major titles are held by non-Americans. Should another pesky European, South African or South American win the 111th US Open, it would be the first time in living memory that five consecutive majors have been claimed by men who don't know the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner". And should it be McIlroy who wins, that would be two champions in successive years from Northern Ireland, which has a population less than a third that of Maryland alone. These are statistics to savour for those of us who spent too long watching Americans dominate the world of golf.

Of course, it might very well be that a home player does prevail tomorrow. It could equally be that young Rory folds even before he reaches the final straight. But that round of 65, in the company of an outclassed Phil Mickelson, was another eloquent declaration of extraordinary talent, to add to those he made at the Augusta National before fluffing his lines on that grisly final afternoon.

In the meantime, the absence of Tiger Woods from this US Open field seems symbolic. Woods, to be sure, had already bagged one of his 14 majors by the time he was the age McIlroy is now. And let's not forget that he won that 1997 Masters with a record score (18 under par) and by a record margin (12 strokes). The Ulsterman has done nothing yet to compare with that. Indeed, when the chance of a most striking comparison came, he found himself wanting. But in the sense that he is a young man whose colossal natural talent outstrips that of all his contemporaries, and of most of his elders too, then he has already picked up Tiger's baton. Whether Tiger, balding, divorced and 35 years old, has the will to reclaim it is another matter.

I suppose I should be circumspect about anointing McIlroy as the new Woods. Sports writers are devils for casting young heroes in the images of old ones, witness the hundreds of column inches declaring Messi the new Maradona, Rafa the new Roger, Flintoff the new Botham, even, fleetingly, Broad the new Flintoff. Perhaps, if I must look for symbolism, I should find it not in the absent friend that is Woods, but in the absent friend that is Seve Ballesteros. McIlroy doesn't quite play with the buccaneering verve of the youthful Seve, and he's not quite as dashing to look at, but it's hard to take your eyes off him. In 2011 alone, he has single-handedly made major championship golf a thrilling spectacle again. Seve must be looking down from the celestial locker room with delight.

My memory plays more tricks than Brazil in 1970 final

A few days ago, ESPN Classic showed, in its entirety, the 1970 World Cup final: Brazil 4 Italy 1. Since I have often enough bored my children with my memories of watching it first time round, cross-legged on the floor at the home of my parents' friends "Auntie" Sybil and "Uncle" Ronnie because they had a colour telly and we didn't, I thought I should cajole my 16-year-old son, Joe, into sitting through it with me.

It was a mistake, just as it would be a mistake to force-feed him a packet of Spangles and a can of strawberry Cresta, or send him down the road on a Chopper. The 1970 World Cup final, I am broken-hearted to report, doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. By any measure, there are timeless moments of genius, not least Brazil's fourth goal, which began with a piece of skill by Everaldo that more than anything – and if you watch it again you'll know what I'm on about – evokes Phil Bennett's slippery jinks at the start of the famous try-scoring move by the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973. But there are also some wincingly clodhopping tackles, some horribly poor passing, and lots of ballooned shots ("just watch this," I said, a second before Rivelino belted a free-kick into Row N) that had Joe looking at me askance.

Still, I'm going to cling on to the illusion that it was the greatest of games, if only because commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme at one point came out with "the devil take the hindmost at the back". As Mary Hopkin sang a couple of years earlier, those were the days, my friend.