LLANO, Tex. — As Tiger Woods practices in secret, hoping to curtail the shanks and yips that plague your average weekend duffer, the sport of golf searches for a new face, a superstar, a Tiger or a Golden Bear that America can embrace.
Can it be Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old Irishman who already has won four major tournaments?
McIlroy is a likable young man, sociable with the galleries, pleasant with media. He adroitly maintains a tricky authenticity as he straddles the European golf tour and America’s. He’s the world’s top-ranked golfer wherever he plays. But we have not yet seen him dominate the manicured landscapes the way Jack Nicklaus did in the 1970s and ’80s and Tiger Woods after him.
While prepping for the Masters, which begins Thursday, McIlroy has not been at his best. He tied for ninth at Doral, the highlight being he hurled his 3-iron into a pond.
Whereupon the owner of the golf course, Donald Trump, did not miss an opportunity to inject himself into national and, better yet, international, media.
Trump hired a scuba diver to retrieve the wayward club so he could present it to McIlroy, a valuable memento of what Trump called “a beautiful moment,” noting that “he threw it with such elegance.”
Thanks so much, Donald.
Whatever it was, it was not a Golden Bear moment. It underscored that McIlroy has not yet established the control of the game that Nicklaus and Woods had. Following that unfortunate Doral, with its 9th –place finish, McIlroy was a dull 11th at the Arnold Palmer. He enters the Masters on more of a dip than a roll.
And it’s not just his recent history that troubles, it’s the lingering memories of the 2011 Masters, when he blew a last-round 4-stroke lead. He shot 80 and fell to 15th place. He cried to his parents when he spoke to them the morning after.
Ever since then he’s had to answer questions about a Masters jinx. In six starts at Augusta National he has never finished above eighth. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, the most candid of commentators, pointed out that the Masters has so many treacherous pin locations that brilliant recoveries are necessary.
“He’s not the greatest scrambler. He’s middle of the pack.”
Nor is McIlroy the most adept putter on the tour. And no greens are longer and more difficult to decipher than the ones he’s playing this week. As he told USA Today: “Augusta is all about being comfortable on greens that fast and that undulating.”
Bubba Watson, current wearer of that visually appalling green jacket, and also the winner in 2012, is calculated to be the longest driver on the tour (McIlroy is close) but is also one of the most daring and successful troubleshooters. Given their combination of strengths, weaknesses and recent form, Watson, 3rd at Doral and 5th in last week’s Houston Open, is a better bet in the Masters than McIlroy, Las Vegas favorite at 6-1 odds.
Alas, Watson’s global impact is limited because he’s a Bubba,, born in Florida, and not the youngest of pros at 36.
A more exciting hope for the future – who might be ready right now – is 30-year-old Dustin Johnson. He won Doral, was 6th at Houston, and he maintains a veil of alluring mystery.
Johnson was suspended from the PGA Tour for much of last year, reportedly because of cocaine use. He said he left the tour “to seek professional help for personal challenges I have faced.”
He’s made an impressive-looking rebound, becoming engaged to Wayne Gretzky’s blonde-tressed daughter Paulina. Johnson could be the redemption story of the year if he could win the Masters, at 12-1 odds. He missed the cut at Augusta last year, shortly before his sabbatical.
Many see golf’s rising star being ex-Longhorn Jordan Spieth. At 21 he’s the No. 2 betting choice in the Masters at 8-1, absurdly ahead of Watson at 10-1. Spieth enters the Masters feeling confident with two seconds and a first in his past three tournaments. And he likes the course, where in his debut last year he shared the 54-hole lead with Watson.
But it’s far too soon to project Spieth to superstardom. He hasn’t captured the national audience. Or even the local one. Living within 90 miles of where he played his college golf, I’ve never heard anything interesting said about Jordan Spieth.
The boring perfectionism of Nicklaus – and sought by Spieth – can be annoying to some. The galleries preferred the more colorful, less methodical, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino.
Considering how thoroughly he dominated the sport (his record of 18 majors towers like Cy Young’s 509 wins), the Golden Bear was not revered. On occasion you’d hear a voice in the gallery as he was standing, questionmark-like, over a putt: “Duff it, Jack.”
Woods had the same irrepressible consistency as Nicklaus, but with his personal and physical issues, he has not maintained his excellence as long. Woods flew to Augusta in his private plane and under a cloak of secrecy. It seems difficult to believe that as recently as 2013 he was PGA Tour Player of the Year.
Woods, 39, insists that after two months of non-touring, his full game “is finally there,” that he’s now able to “compete to win a golf tournament.”
That would be the ultimate redemptions story. But Vegas is doubtful. He’s 40-1.
As for McIlroy, he has won all the other majors and seeks to become the sixth PGA player to win a career Grand Slam. All that holds him back is the Masters.
It’s encouraging that he did turn the 2011 Masters Meltdown into something of a springboard. He buffed up his body, so much so that he appeared shirtless on the cover of Men’s Health magazine.
He dedicated himself to golf as he never had before. Even if such dedication would include ending his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. Five days after the breakup, he won the BMW PGA Championship, the premier event on the European tour. She moved on to J.J. Watt.
McIlroy’s life story has global appeal and hardscrabble origins rare in his sport. His mother Rosie worked a factory night shift, and his dad, Gerry, put in 100 hours a week tending bar and cleaning locker rooms.
The world may grow to love the vulnerability in McIlroy that it could never find in Nicklaus. It’s seen a bit too much of it in Tiger Woods, who despite all his impairments still captivates the way no one else can.