Top Dogs, Different Breeds

Before we go all gushy about the new world No. 1 – who has held the top spot for two, count ‘em, two consecutive weeks – and whether he’s some kind of second coming, let’s see if most of us can hop on board the train back to reality.

Rory McIlroy, all of 23 years old, is probably the best player in the game at the moment, and we stress the momentary nature of this declaration. He has the best swing and every part of his game is championship caliber. But that’s in the shallow end of a deep talent pool, where there are a double handful of players who are just about as good. In other words, McIlroy is No. 1 with a slingshot instead of a bullet.


Of his last 17 worldwide starts, he has three victories, including one major championship. But he also has four second-place finishes and three third places. What that means, especially when the gap between winner and runner-up is no more than a shot or two, is that you had a chance to win and didn’t.

All those high finishes accumulate a basket full of world ranking points but they don’t do anything to cement your reputation as a closer, which is really what you need to be the true and uncontested world No. 1.

That was certainly the case with a former No. 1, who spent 600 or 5,000 or however many weeks atop the rankings. Tiger Woods’ father, Earl, used to call Tiger a “cold-blooded assassin” on the course and no one has come up with a better description. Woods would cut your heart out and stomp on it given half a chance, and there have been many a bleeding heart left in the trail of tears.

That’s what made him the best in the world at the time and perhaps the best who ever played the game. Second place has never been in Woods’ vocabulary and, according to Tiger and Ricky Bobby, if you ain’t first, you’re last.

Young Rory is no assassin and maybe he doesn’t want to be. That doesn’t make him a bad person nor a poor champion. What it makes him is this:

Human.

Woods was otherworldly in his prime and if he didn’t really want to become a Navy SEAL, he certainly fought like one. He was surgical and relentless and a heartless killer. He didn’t want to talk to you or even look at you, much less go out to dinner or have a drink or hang out with anyone who stood in his way on the narrow path to perfection.

McIlroy, on the other hand, wants to shake your hand, pat you on the back and how about we find a good restaurant and let’s all go. It’s the European way. Rory likes the fact that he’s young, famous, wealthy and has a hot girlfriend. He likes to jump on planes and hang out and play Wozzilroy in New York and Turkey and assorted other far-flung points. What’s the point of being the best in the world if you can’t enjoy its trappings?

This isn’t to say that Woods didn’t like a good time. He just didn’t travel to Vegas and wherever with his competitors. Instead, he preferred to hang out with the likes of Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, who both know how to lay their hands on things, and people that could cause trouble at home.

Instead, since his personal life has been burned to the ground, Woods has some of his humanity back. He doesn’t appear to be as mean on the golf course as he once was. There was a time when Tiger would have ground Robert Rock into gravel, much less allow him to actually win. Now, we come to find that he had to withdraw from Doral late into his final round with an Achilles tendon problem in his left leg.

McIlroy still has his humanity and, in fact, it’s what endears him to us. But it’s the same humanity that doesn’t allow him to cut up his opponents into sawdust. At the WGC-Accenture Match Play, he was so stoked to play Lee Westwood in the semifinals, that the victory over his friendly rival ran him out of gas for the same-day final against Hunter Mahan.

No offense to Mahan, but McIlroy should have won – and was playing well enough to win – the championship, 5 and 4. Instead, he admitted to investing all of his emotion into the Westwood match and had nothing left for Mahan. Do you suppose Woods would ever admitted such a thing – to anyone?

Then, on the tail end of the vapor trail that vaulted him to No. 1, his victory at the Honda Classic, he came to the WGC-Cadillac Championship, flat and uninspired in the first round before coming on like a racehorse on the weekend to finish third.

So, before you decide that McIlroy is the golf world’s fixation on a replacement for the artist formerly known as Tiger, remember this: The current No. 1 is flesh and blood and laughter and tears, not steel and wire and explosives.

“I don’t want to be the next anyone,” McIlroy said at Doral. “I want to be the first Rory McIlroy.”

Rory the First. Long may he reign.

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