He had to have known the question was coming, which made the answer all the more provocative.
Rory McIlroy, making his obligatory pretournament venture into the media center at the Tour Championship as the No. 1 player in the world and No. 4 in the FedEx Cup rankings, talked about managing his playing schedule, how cool it was to go a Denver Broncos game – “Some big boys on that field” – and how important it would be for him to win the FedEx Cup: Pretty yawn-worthy stuff.
Then he was asked about Tiger and Phil and things got interesting.
This is the first time since 1992 that neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson is in the Tour Championship. That year the tournament was held at Pinehurst No. 2 and Fred Couples beat Steve Pate by two shots to win a whopping $76,000. It also was the year McIlroy started preschool as a precocious 3-year-old.
When asked if their absence was emblematic of a generational shift in the game – a “changing of the guard” as the phrase went – McIlroy started out by saying all the right stuff: No, not really … Phil has played well in spurts, especially at the PGA … Tiger is hurt.
Then he ventured into eyebrow-raising territory, saying: “It’s a lot of golf for (Phil) to play in such a short space of time. You could see he was getting a little tired the last couple of weeks.”
Alone that statement might have been innocent enough, a statement of the demands of the late-season schedule, especially in a Ryder Cup year. But what followed left no doubt about what McIlroy meant.
“They’re just getting older,” he said. “Phil’s 43 or whatever and Tiger’s nearly 40. So they’re getting into sort of the last few holes of their careers. That’s what happens. You get injured. Phil has had to deal with an arthritic condition as well. It obviously just gets harder as you get older.”
Then, to cap it off, he smiled and said, “I’ll be able to tell you in 20 years how it feels.”
That wasn’t a changing of the guard. That was a hostile revolution, an overthrow, a storming of the dean’s office carrying a sign that said, “Never Trust Anybody Over 30.”
It was a proclamation: The King isn’t dead, but he is decrepit. Long live the king.