Rory McIlroy is on his way to proving Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington were spot on when they proclaimed last year that their young mate was the “next Tiger Woods.” Heck, after his new favorite playing partner left him and other members of golf’s elite in his dust on the way to his second straight tour win -- the first time a PGA golfer has notched back-to-back victories since some guy name Eldrick did so in 2009 -- even Tiger Woods could not avoid the comparisons.
“Yeah,” Woods, 36, said Sunday about whether he saw something in his youthful rival’s game that was reminiscent of his own. “He's going out there and is up near the lead and posts a good number. He's doing the things he needs to do, and as he said yesterday, he's feeling very confident about his game.
“Right now he's just really playing well, and he's making a ton of putts,” added Woods, who, despite rolling an average of 27 putts per round last week, bemoaned a number of lip-outs during his 4-under 68 final round. “That's a great combo.”
Add those elements to the boost of brashness McIlroy’s received from beating up on the best of the best at the PGA Championship and in the second and third legs of the FedEx Cup series, and golf enthusiasts may be in for a run of triumphs they have not witnessed since Woods was at his domineering peak.
“I sort of picked up where I left off in Boston [at Labor Day weekend’s Deutsche Bank Championship], shot 64 the first day here, and just playing with a lot of confidence right now,” McIlroy told reporters after firing a closing-round 67 for a 20-under, two-shot win over Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson at Crooked Stick. “I'm confident in my ability and confident with the shots that I'm hitting and confident on the greens. You know, I'm making the right decisions out there, and everything is really just going to plan at the minute. It's a nice run to be on, and I want to try and keep it going for as long as possible.”
After a round in which the world's top-ranked golfer missed just one fairway, averaged almost 300 yards off the tee, and needed only 27 putts, it was easy to imagine McIlroy lifting the FedEx Cup two weeks hence at East Lake. And that was following a display of what he termed “horrendous” driving on Saturday, when finding just 57 percent of fairways in regulation prompted the 23-year-old two-time major winner to emulate his boyhood idol and hit the range for a post-round stint of serious ball-pounding.
“I thought yesterday I didn't have my best golf, but I still managed to shoot 69, not to shoot myself out of the tournament,” said McIlroy, the only four-time winner on tour this year and a lock for player of the year honors. “I went and did some great work on the range last night after I played, figured a couple things out.”
In a gift from the golf gods (and buttoned-up tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who must be doing figurative cartwheels about the must-see TV the season-ending events have become), the game’s current king and former ace are Nos. 1 and 2 in the world rankings as well as in FedEx Cup points. Playoff groupings are arranged based on the standings, so that means at least two more rounds when the game’s most magnetic couple will go toe-to-toe for all the marbles in the winner-take-$10 million Tour Championship.
Anyone in the top five will hit the jackpot by emerging victorious at East Lake. But unless 11 days off can do what only Nick Watney has been able to accomplish in the past four events McIlroy has started -- keep Caroline Wozniacki's main squeeze from the winner’s circle -- expect to see the name of the pretender to Woods’ throne etched on the cup in two weeks.
Should he win, that would be four Ws in five tournaments for the pride of Holywood, Northern Ireland. And while McIlroy humbly averred that he was not ready to ascend to Tiger-esque heights just yet, he conceded he was not too far from going on a Woods-like run.
“I think I’ve always had an appreciation for what Tiger did over the years, winning seven, eight, nine times in a season for, I don't know how long, 10 years,” McIlroy said. “The more you put yourself in this position, and the more you win, and the more you pick up trophies, it becomes normal, and it feels like this is what you’re supposed to do. I’m sure that’s how he felt when he was on that run, and how he still feels.
“He still won three times this year,” McIlroy said of Woods. “I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I’m getting to that stage where I’m thinking, ‘This is what I should be doing. I should be lifting a trophy at the end of the week.’
“It’s been great. The last four weeks, five weeks have been incredible, some of the best golf that I’ve ever played,” McIlroy said. “I’m going to try and keep the run going for as long as possible.”