HOYLAKE, England — Golf has been looking for the next big star the last five years, and Rory McIlroy is the most obvious candidate.
With his name on the claret jug and his Irish eyes now focused on a green jacket, McIlroy took a big step toward the career Grand Slam with four dominant days at Royal Liverpool. He looks unbeatable at times like this. Boy Wonder has it all – skill, strength, shot-making. Throw in a great week with the putter and it’s not a fair fight.
But being the next big star is not the same as being the next Tiger Woods.
Or even another Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus and Woods are defined by the majors, so it’s natural for the 25-year-old McIlroy to be linked with them after his two-shot victory in the British Open. Nicklaus and Woods were the only players younger than McIlroy to win three legs of the Grand Slam.
Nicklaus had the U.S. Open, Masters and PGA Championship when he was 23. He had been a pro for two years. Woods had the Masters, PGA Championship and U.S. Open when he was 24 and in his fourth full year as a pro. Woods added the career slam a month later.
McIlroy had a head start. He turned pro when he was 18. This is his seventh year playing the majors.
More than the majors, however, is a body of work that keeps Woods in a different league. At least for now.
“We used to say there will never be another Nicklaus, and then along came Tiger,” Phil Mickelson said. “You never want to discount the possibility of someone coming along and dominating. But nobody has really asserted themselves week in and week out the way Tiger did for such a long period of time. We’ll have great performances, like Rory this week, like (Martin) Kaymer at the U.S. Open and so forth.
“But it’s very hard to do that week in and week out the way Tiger did,” he said. “That’s why it was so impressive what he did.”
Woods had a dip in his game when he overhauled his swing toward the end of his first full season on tour. Once he sorted that out, he won seven out of 11 majors. More than just majors, however, he won 28 tournaments worldwide in a three-year span.
McIlroy, who now has 13 wins worldwide, has been prone to inconsistent play. He missed four cuts in a five-tournament stretch in the summer of 2012 before going on a tear by winning the PGA Championship, consecutive FedEx Cup playoff events and the money title on both sides of the Atlantic.
He went to No. 1 in the world and looked as if he would stay there for a generation.
But he didn’t win last year until late November in Australia. Blame that on a combination of signing a new equipment deal, getting into bad habits with his swing and changing management for the second time, this one leading to a legal dispute that still has to be worked out in court.
Off the course, he got engaged to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and then surprised everyone five months later by breaking the engagement over the phone.
Never a dull moment with McIlroy.
As great as he looked at Hoylake, even more intriguing is where McIlroy goes from here. With so much emphasis on the Masters and a shot at the Grand Slam, McIlroy had to remind himself there is one major still to play before then. The PGA Championship at Valhalla is three weeks away.
He is still No. 2 in the world behind Adam Scott, who has the consistency McIlroy needs, but not a reliable putter. It seems to be only a matter of time before McIlroy gets to the top and tries to stay there a little longer.
Even if he’s not the next Tiger, he can be the next dominant player.
“Some of the guys will have heard me say that golf is looking to someone to put their hand up and try, and I said at that time I want to be that person,” McIlroy said. “I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors, and wins majors regularly, wins tournaments. I’d love to be in that position. And I’ve had chances before to kick on from there. I did after my second major at Kiawah. I kicked on for another six months and played really well.
“I just want to think ahead and go forward ... because I feel like there’s a lot more left in me.”
The closer McIlroy gets to being that top player, the more appreciation there is for the dominance Woods enjoyed for so many years. Graeme McDowell is among those who don’t expect to see anything like that in his career, if ever.
And this is a guy who has been raving about McIlroy since Boy Wonder was still a boy.
“Someone like Rory or Adam maybe could do it. They’re that good,” McDowell said. “But so is everyone else, unfortunately. So that type of dominance, I don’t think we’re going to see that again for a while unless somebody comes out who has perfected the imperfectable.”
Is Rory golf’s next big star? Possibly.
Another dominant player like Woods?
“I don’t see it happening,” McDowell said. “Could prove me wrong.”