Tiger Woods is playing his best golf in three years and seemingly enjoying it more than perhaps ever in his career, but Rory McIlroy is eating his boyhood idol’s lunch on the golf course, according to NBC and Golf Channel analysts.
“Right now, as far as the complete package, all the edge has to go Rory [in confidence, driving, and putting],” NBC’s Roger Maltbie opined during a Wednesday teleconference ahead of the networks’ extensive coverage of next week’s Tour Championship and upcoming Ryder Cup. “Right now, [Rory’s] the top of all those elements.”
Golf Channel’s resident funny man David Feherty painted an even more majestic portrait of his younger countryman.
"He's nothing short of golfing royalty,” said Feherty, like McIlroy, a native of Northern Ireland. “His swing is like Michelangelo playing golf. It’s magnificent, and when Tiger Woods says the things that he says about another golfer, you know that you’re talking about someone very, very special indeed.”
With Woods once again better than most of his opponents, and McIlroy at the top of his game as the PGA Tour’s season-ender and Ryder Cup hove into view, everyone’s favorite activity involves comparing the abilities of the world’s top two players. The blossoming friendship slash rivalry between No. 1 and No. 2, who will play together yet again in the first two rounds of next week’s FedEx Cup finale, adds a bit of intrigue to the matchup, as does Woods’ flattering evaluation of his heir apparent.
Indeed, Woods sounded recently as if he would wholeheartedly agree with the wise guys about the 23-year-old who has notched three wins in his last four events, including back-to-back victories after wrapping up his second majorin another eight-shot romp.
“He's just an amazing talent. You watch him swing the club and watch him putt and play, he doesn't have a lot of weaknesses,” Woods said after enjoying a front-row seat to McIlroy’s effortless first round of the BMW Championship last Thursday. “I wish I could hit it as far as he does.”
Glowing reviews like that reminded many observers of a youthful Eldrick.
“Right now Rory McIlroy is driving the ball so well that he is rendering golf courses, let’s not say, obsolete, but he has got control of the golf course,” said Maltbie. “You just can’t over-emphasize the importance of the driver.”
Drive for show, putt for dough? Check, and check, Maltbie averred
“The first requirement of championship golf is to get your ball on the fairway. If you can do that, and get it down there a long ways as well, you have so many opportunities to be aggressive and offensive with your iron play,” he said. “You couple that with a kid right now who is putting almost other-worldly, you do those kind of things, now you got someone that’s really hard to beat.”
Might overhauling tracks to dampen the Rory effect -- as designers did when Woods, at his dominant best, was making their architectural gems resemble putt-putt circuits -- be far behind?
Not so fast, suggested NBC’s lead analyst Johnny Miller, who sought to bring the other-worldly back to earth by arguing that, at his longest off the tee, McIlroy bested Woods’ best drives by “not more than five or eight yards.
“The distance is not that big a deal; they’re both long,” said the two-time major champion who reportedly rejected Woods’ long-ago entreaty to join his entourage as his swing coach. “I will say if Tiger had the ball and the clubs they use now and he was 19 years old, he would fly McIlroy by 15, 20 yards.
“Tiger had 132 miles of club head speed when he was 19 or 20,” Miller said. “He would make Bubba Watson look like an average hitter if he was 19.”
(Reigning Masters champ Watson leads the league in driving distance, at an average 315.3 yards. McIlroy, sixth on tour with the big stick, has Woods -- 34th -- by some 13 yards, at almost 310 yards to 297.3 yards).
Alas, Woods is no longer that young gun, and Miller pointed out that his would-be student had the aging joints of a man almost twice his age (himself) to prove it.
“He knows that left knee is probably not going to get any better. He doesn’t know how long it’s even going to last,” said Miller about Woods’ bad wheel, which he tweaked, again, last week at Crooked Stick. “I think he realizes that he can see that there could be little bad luck, a real abrupt end to be able to swing hard and get the distance. That’s why he can’t get the distance quite as much as he used to.”
The oft-injured limb was just part of the reason that Woods’ distance had decreased, according to Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee. Psychological wounds combined with the surgical ones, Chamblee contended, to put Woods at a disadvantage compared with McIlroy.
“Tiger Woods, he fears a lot of things when he’s hitting drives and there’s trouble left and there’s issues,” said Chamblee, who has regularly criticized Woods for revamping the way he hits the ball. “You got one guy [McIlroy], who’s young and he’s playing without and scars or fear, and another playing with physical scars that are in his knees, the scars of past poor driving, and then incorporating very complicated swing changes.
“You throw all those together,” Chamblee said, “and it’s enough to rob Tiger Woods of those intangible things that made him as good, or better, than Rory is now.”
Miller, who believes Woods emerged from his fall from grace as “a happier person,” said the golfer’s knee was likely hindering Woods far more than the viewing public was aware.
“I think it’s a bigger factor than people are giving credit to, but I went through the same thing with all kinds of knee problems,” Miller said. “Not that he’s seen the writing on the wall, but he’s maybe enjoying the moments he’s got left. Who knows how long that thing’s going to hang in there, playing against these strong, young kids.”