Three years ago, I created a mild lunchtime controversy when I proclaimed to a co-worker that “Tiger Woods is as good at golf as anyone in the history of the world is at what they do.” He was understandably outraged by my audacity, but also on behalf of Michelangelo (art), Einstein (physics), Beethoven (music), Hugh Grant (acting), and Rick Reilly (writing columns that infuriate me). Sure, I was being a touch hyperbolic, but at the very least I believed that Tiger would be the best golfer I ever saw. After watching Rory McIlroy’s domination at this weekend’s US Open, I’m wondering if perhaps I spoke too soon.
Through all his off-the-course drama, injuries, and frustrations this season, I’ve remained a huge defender of Tiger’s golf game. He made golf interesting and relevant. You could never count him out of a tournament if it wasn’t over. Everyone remembers Rory’s collapse at the Masters, but what some people forget is that Tiger got that day started by firing -5 on the front nine. No one in this week’s US Open put any pressure on Rory, and the course was there for the taking. Tiger is different than all other golfers because in the heat of competition, he always refused to play the games that most tour players play. He was never shy about having a killer instinct. He was curt with the media. He didn’t engage with fans between holes. He rarely smiled (except to acknowledge how great a shot he just hit). He cursed in front of the camera. Tiger was just always sort of a dick.
On the other side of the spectrum is Phil Mickelson, the man of the people. On the surface, Phil does all the right things. He waves to the gallery. He doles out high fives to every underprivileged youth he can find. He smiles (a lot). He is patient with interviewers. He wears ridiculously inappropriate tight shirts. But I’ve always wondered whether we are seeing the real Phil. It’s a question that’s been asked a lot, as players allegedly call him FIGJAM, as a PGA players survey once split down the middle as to who players would least like to eat with, and as one of the players that other players least want to play a round with. Even oNe16tH and WopGolf hate the guy. With all that mounting evidence, it’s probably safe to assume that Phil’s also a dick, but still, it’s sometimes hard not to root for the guy. He does all the right things.
Even after Rory’s domination this week, the comparisons to Tiger are premature, and it’s too soon to discuss whether this he will break every record in golf. But, if I was trying to stir up another lunch time controversy, I might say that I think Rory has already become my favorite golfer of all time. His swing is as sweet as any of the disgusting varieties of highly caloric snacks I ate while watching round 4. His putting stroke as smooth as the behind of one of the 33 babies crawling around my friend’s house when I tried to watch round 3 on Saturday. But most of all, I think I just like him. He said all the right things after the Masters, but not like how Tiger and Phil used to ”say the right things.” Their inner monologues never came out, but if they did, here’s what I would imagine:
Bob Costas: Tiger, you had a 3 stroke lead at the turn. Then you melted down on the 10th. What happened out there?
Tiger: (internal monologue) (F*ck you, Costas. What the F*ck do you think happened there? I f*cking pullhooked a ball out of bounds and then I wanted to f*cking rip the head off the photographer that clicked his camera just after I f*cking hit the GD ball. it’s his fault.)
Tiger: (out loud) Putts just didn’t fall, Bob. I’m frustrated out there.
Bob Costas: Phil, you had a 3 stroke lead at the turn. Then you melted down on the 10th. What happened out there?
Phil: (internal monologue) (What would a man of the people say here? I’m a man of the people. I should probably say something about the fans. I really am the man at golf. Why don’t I win more? I am so good at this game. I hit a bomb on 13. BOMB).
Phil: (out loud) Well, Bob. I am really disappointed with how I played on the back nine. I really felt the support of the fans out there. I’ll get ‘em next time. Thanks to everyone for the support. It was a frustrating day, and I’m disappointed with the results, but I’ll get after it again soon. I hit a bomb on 13 though.
Some players never come back from a near win in a major (Colin Montgomery). Others would have to answer questions time and again about whether they had what it took to win a major (Sergio). It’s already been said by just about everyone how humble, poised, and gracious Rory seemed after the Masters. But it’s true. And you can’t help root for the kid when he’s got the game of Tiger (without the intensity at the expense of being a real person) and the likability of Phil (without the schtick or the phoniness).
I can’t wait to see what he has in store. Because if it’s what I expect, it’s gonna be a real pleasure to watch.