There’s a tendency among all of us to to draw comparisons across eras and between star athletes. In today’s social media era, the public perception of an athlete can shift from good to bad or vice versa at a moment’s notice. At the Open Championship – where fortunes can change based in the slightest breeze – the cheers and jaunts are amplified.
The first two rounds of the Rory McIlroy’s Open Championship are a good example. Even before the tournament, the Hater’s Ball was in full swing. McIlroy entered the tournament missing three of his past four cuts. On Thursday morning, he followed up his with a dismal start to the tournament. With five bogeys in his first six holes, the skeptics reveled.
A pep talk from maligned caddie J.P. Fitzgerald turned McIlroy’s championship around and changed the landscape of the tournament. McIlroy surged to 1-under par, playing his last 27 holes 6-under to find a spot in the top 10 of the tournament.
Rory McIlroy is golf’s preeminent superstar. He is a swashbuckling talent with swagger. “Peak Rory” is a spectacle which leaves fans and media salivating. At his best, Rory plays the game at a level that rivals Tiger in his prime. At 28, he has four major championships, a FedEx Cup win, two WGC Titles and 15 other wins.
But when Rory isn’t “Peak Rory,” he doesn’t contend. His B, C, and D game bring about more questions than answers. While he remains a brilliant, world-class talent, sometimes you can be left wondering where the magic went.
Unfortunately for Rory McIlroy he is – and will always be – the star that followed Tiger Woods. Tiger ushered in an unprecedented combination of dominance and consistency. Tiger’s A-Game won tournaments by ten, his B-Game won by 3, his C game had a chance to win and his worst would still make the cut. He spoiled golf fans to a combination of consistency and dominance that will likely never be seen again.
Woods game was similar to another sports star, Michael Jordan. Whether Jordan’s jumper was falling or not he was getting 30. And when the chips fell and the game was on the line, Jordan would will his team to a win. Tiger and Jordan were dominant forces who broke their opponents’ will to compete.
If Woods is Jordan, Rory is the Dominique Wilkins. Aptly nicknamed “The Human Highlight Reel”, Wilkins was must-see TV. His explosive dunks and dominant scoring ability transformed the Atlanta Hawks into a perennial contender. Wilkins’ career is one of the greatest of all-time. Unfortunately, his greatness is diminished by the long shadow that Jordan cast.
There is a tendency among some to attribute the variability in Rory’s performance to disinterest. Steve Elkington suggested as much last month. I don’t buy it. There is a certain beauty in Rory’s volatility. Somedays you have it, other days you don’t. That’s golf.
Much like Wilkins would never match Jordan, Rory will never match Tiger. That doesn’t mean we can’t sit back, enjoy and stop critiquing golf’s “Human Highlight Reel”.