As soon as we get over being all breathless about Rory McIlroy winning two major championships – two – perhaps we’ll stop this enthusiastic but misinformed talk about Rory running down Jack Nicklaus’ record or anyone else’s.
It’s clear that McIlroy, at 23, is the best player in the world – right here, right now. He’s proved it beyond anyone’s objections with his near-flawless performance at the PGA Championship. He certainly didn’t look as if he bludgeoned the Ocean Course and the rest of the field at Kiawah Island, but he sure did make it appear alarmingly easy.
And it’s the seeming effortlessness of the victory that has a lot of people thinking that McIlroy has the stuff to amass more than 18 majors in his career. He won the PGA by eight shots and the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional by the same margin.
Two majors at 23 is a really big deal, make no mistake. Both Nicklaus and Tiger Woods had two majors at the same age within a month or two of one another. But McIlroy has a generation’s worth of living and winning to do before we start making wild comparisons.
It’s easy to see why so many are so glowing. McIlroy has raw talent that is rapidly becoming refined. He has length off the tee, pure swing mechanics and a short game that are the building blocks for potential. When he’s at his best, no one else at his best can beat him. That’s the line of demarcation to be the No. 1 player in the world.
But greatness comes with consistency over time. And McIlroy hasn’t always been at his best. In fact, far from it at times. He has demonstrated that he can be easily distracted, particularly by his globe-trotting girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. McIlroy sleepwalked through the five majors he played between victories, including a missed cut at this year’s U.S. Open to go with MCs at the Players Championship and the Memorial Tournament.
As a consequence, he endured some unexpected slings and arrows from the world golf media that questioned his work ethic and his dedication, particularly when he admitted he might have mailed it in a couple of times when it looked like he would miss a cut. Particularly when he had ‘Wozzilroy’ on the brain.
At the PGA Championship, he said he used that criticism as a motivator. He imported his swing coach, Michael Bannon, from his club job at Bangor Golf Club in Northern Ireland to be with him full-time. And as a result, McIlroy said it took him all of four weeks to get his game back.
Which is kind of scary because it has taken Tiger more than two years to get his game back, except for the majors, and who knows when that level of his game will return.
For now, the topic du jour is whether McIlroy is the next Tiger or the first McIlroy. And you can debate that all you want. Even the likes of Padraig Harrington, himself the owner of three major titles, has declared McIlroy the future holder of the most majors when his career is done.
If that’s the case, he will need to dominate the game for a period of time like Woods and Nicklaus did. Between 1962 and 1967, Nicklaus won seven majors. He went two years without winning a major, and from 1970-80, he won 10 more.
After Woods won his second major in 1999, he had a 12-month run like no one else. Beginning with the 2000 U.S. Open, which he won by 14 shots at Pebble Beach, he won four straight majors – the last three of 2000 and the 2001 Masters. He held all four major championship titles at once, a feat no one has achieved in the modern era.
And, Nicklaus holds another impressive, untouchable, yet relatively unknown record. He finished second an astounding 19 times in major championships. Tiger finished second in a major once, that to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship. If Nicklaus had won just half of those runner-ups, we would not even be having this conversation. Everyone else would be playing for second.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that for the world’s top players, the majors are the deal. Everything in between is prologue. Careers will be measured on the number of majors on the resume. Whether McIlroy can take command of the majors in the next five years will likely determine whether he has a chance to rank among the elite when his time is done.
Woods is 36 and figures that he has 10 more years – that’s 40 majors – to catch Nicklaus. McIlroy has more than twice that long and twice that many majors, but he can’t afford to wait.
Speaking of time, there are about eight months until the next major, the 2013 Masters, where McIlroy so famously disintegrated into a puff of smoke in 2011. What he does between now and then will go a long way in determining his future.
If he wins The Masters, go ahead and talk. You have permission. Until then, the record is 18 and no one, not even the great Tiger, has come close.