By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Rory McIlroy has never felt intimidated by anyone on the golf course. The same could not be said of many of Tiger Woods’ opponents during the height of his career.
There was a time not all that long ago when Woods was considered the favorite in every major he entered, and for a decade he won once out of every three times he teed it up. Now he’s admittedly just happy to be healthy and able to do the work he needs to do on his game.
And while McIlroy said Wednesday that he still considers Woods the biggest attraction in the game of golf, Boy Wonder’s star continues to rise at a meteoric pace.
Now the question is how high will it reach?
In McIlroy’s last eight majors, he’s finished in the top 3 four times, which includes of course his record-setting victory at the U.S. Open earlier this year. It also includes a pair of third-place finishes in the PGA Championship the last two years.
“I don’t think it’s quite a new era yet until other guys start to win majors regularly like [Tiger] did,” McIlroy said.
The operative word is yet, but a win here at Atlanta Athletic Club by McIlroy would officially change that. And there’s a good reason he’s the favorite.
McIlroy arrives off four straight rounds in the 60s at Firestone and having learned exponentially not just since his Masters meltdown but last year’s PGA Championship in Wisconsin, where he three-putted the 15th hole on Sunday and finished a stroke out of the playoff.
“I was a completely different person on that Sunday at Augusta, and I didn’t need to be,” McIlroy said. “I learned from that, from the Masters going into Congressional. And them from Congressional until now it’s been – you learn more from your defeats than your wins, so on the golf course I haven’t learned maybe as much as I did at the Masters, but off the golf course I’ve learned how to deal with things.”
One of the things McIlroy learned was that the game he honed on the shores and links courses of Holywood, Northern Ireland, was perfectly suited to American-style golf courses.
Much was made about McIlroy’s post-Open Championship comments when he said he was “not a fan of tournaments where the outcome is predicated so much by the weather” and that he’d “rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”
But that came on the heels of a disappointing tie for 25th and was also somewhat misleading, given his amateur success when all the big tournaments were played on links courses.
McIlroy will certainly get his wish this week, though. Atlanta Athletic Club is about as different as the miles are long between here and the southeast coast of England. It will also be plenty warm and sunny with temperatures north of 90 on a course that, in simple terms, rewards good ball-strikers -- and few are better than McIlroy in that department.
“Old-school, American-style golf courses which I really like playing on -- the likes of Muirfield Village, Quail Hollow, Firestone and Congressional, are sort of quite similar,” McIlroy said. “They're golf courses that I like; tree-lined courses. You need to drive it well, the approach shots need to be accurate and you need to have a bit of imagination around the greens.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, those are all courses Woods has won on.
Not that McIlroy thinks, at least publicly, that he’ll have the same sort of domination of effect Tiger did for a decade.
“I’m not the most imposing figure in the game,” says McIlroy, who added that “a lot of guys are capable of winning.”
That may be true with a dozen different winners over the last 12 majors, but a victory by McIlroy would cast a shadow over all of them.