Is Rory the next Tiger, or is he Tiger's next rival?

June 21, 2011 

In the shadow of our nation's Capitol, professional golf saw its future this past weekend. What remains to be seen, however, is whether its most recent past might still have a say in just how dominant the baby-faced, curly-haired new age might prove to be.

In undoubtedly the most dominating performance in U.S. Open Championship history -- or any other major for that matter -- Rory McIlroy shattered record after record in our national championship, posting a 16-under 268 to claim the world's toughest tournament by an impressive eight shots.

In doing so, McIlroy dusted Jason Day, Robert Garrigus and a host of other also-rans to win his first major at the just-old-enough-to-toast age of 22. Yet by all accounts, the player he was most challenging was more than 800 miles to his south and was never involved in golf's second major of the year.

Indeed, Rory's victory was so dominating, so decisive and so impressive that the only golfer worthy of mention alongside him was Tiger Woods, the last player to demonstrate such a mastery of the game to make its toughest test seem more like a day of putt-putt.

With every round in the 60s, with every previously considered untouchable record shattered, McIlroy drew comparison after comparison to the not-in-attendance Woods, who won the Masters at the tender age of 21 in 1997 and followed that three years later with a 15-shot victory at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach -- which was, until this past Sunday, the most dominating U.S. Open performance in the 111-year history of the event.

It wasn't long after Rory forged a 36-hole lead of six shots with a score of 11 under that the comparisons to Woods took root and went viral. Now, with the victory cemented and his peers predicting long-term dominance, his place with Tiger, and this potential to surge past the once-thought best player in the world, is pretty much dominating the tee box of public discussion.

We live in a "what did you just show me" age where past performances last about as long as the TiVo erase button on ESPN's 12th straight SportsCenter. We love what we just saw and forget what preceded it pretty darn fast. Given that, Rory's performance at Congressional Golf Club is the toast of the golf town, and well it should be. Its comparisons to Woods at Pebble are fair and worthy of discussion, although predictions that he will win more majors than Woods and maybe even Jack Nicklaus seem premature at the very least.

That said, this weekend we saw the potential Rory owns on full display. At the same time, we saw nothing from Tiger but continued reports of a bum leg. How, or even whether, those two realities come into play with one another remains to be seen, but for the first time in some time there is a compelling storyline that has the potential to play out. What golf now has is one popular player's greatness on the precipice while another's seems to sit perilously close to the abyss.

ESPN's Andy North wondered aloud this weekend what Tiger might have been thinking while he watched Rory dismantle his own U.S. Open accomplishments. Was the performance simply the announcement of the next to come or a shot across the bow of the one that still wants to remain the best in the game?

There are those who have questioned Woods' desire to play. I now wonder whether the unquestionable arrival of the game's next great thing will rekindle Tiger's passion and competitive desire that has seemed to wane under the pressure of injuries and personal failures.

It's fair to say this; Rory was never competing with the players who were with him at Congressional, the scoreboard told that story all too well. They were supporting actors at best, window dressing at worst. The one we missed, however, is the one we want to see set against this kid. It is, perhaps, the rivalry we have been waiting for between two players we can legitimately root for. I just hope one man's potential and another's health allows it to come to pass.

It used to be taboo to pull Tiger's tail. The question now, in golf's new day, is whether a returned-to-form Woods can rattle the Rory.

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