Steve Eubanks: Rory McIlroy a blend of two of golf's greats

Rory McIlroy's victory brought cheers, and even some tears, from the gallery.

Eubanks: McIlroy a blend of two of golf's greats

Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship with a Tiger-like dominance and an Arnold Palmer-style charm. That blend of traits is quickly making him a champion as popular as he is great.

By Steve Eubanks,

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- He never looked uncomfortable. And he never looked his age. 

At 23 years 3 months, Rory McIlroy became the youngest man to win the PGA Championship since Tom Creavy took the title in Rhode Island in 1931 – younger than Jack Nicklaus in 1963; younger than Tiger Woods in 1999; younger in fact, than anyone in the stroke-play era. 

And he looked like an old soul doing it. 

Loping down the fairways of the Ocean Course like a man on vacation Sunday, McIlroy never made a bogey and never looked concerned that he might. His flowing swing released the golf club without a care in the world. The drives that missed did so in the right spots, and when he missed a green, he mesmerized the crowds with a short game that would have made Seve Ballesteros smile.  

This wasn’t a squeaker or a fluke. Not only did he reach 13 under, a score no one could have fathomed earlier in the week, his two major victories have been by a combined total of 16 shots. 

His eight-shot margin was a PGA Championship record, and he became the second youngest man in history to win two majors (Jack Nicklaus nipped him by one month).  He also regained the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking and jumped into the Player of the Year mix. 

The crowds at Kiawah embraced him, chanting “Rory, Rory” as he walked up to the final green. And there were tears -- genuine, heartfelt emotional tears pouring from the eyes of total strangers -- not because of the way he played, but because of who he is and what he represents.  

“He’s going to be the player that kids look up to, that kids measure their own wannabe games by,” fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell said. “Ten years ago it was Tiger Woods. It’s still Tiger Woods to a certain extent, but now we’ve got superstars like Rory McIlroy for kids to be looking at … with a great attitude and great charisma and great character. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell: he’s great for the game, an absolute breath of fresh air for the game of golf.”    

There is nothing arrogant or pretentious about Rory, nothing that leaves the average fan saying, “He’ll learn,” or “Let him grow up.” There is no cold stare; no muscled entourage, no head-down marches past the children shouting his name. The fist pumps are just as exciting while being markedly different: more joyful and genuine without a hint of anger.

“I realize that everytime my face is on TV or I'm playing in a tournament, that I am a role model for a lot of people and a lot of kids do look up to me,” Rory said. “I try to do my best in that regard and put myself across as honestly and as modestly as possible. Some can view it as a big responsibility, but I think if you just go about your life and live it normally and live it the way you always would, I think everything's okay.  But it's a huge honor to be put in that position. To have an effect on so many people's lives is a nice feeling.”   

Fans at the PGA Championship loved him because he won with a Tiger-kind of dominance and an Arnold Palmer-sort of charm: winking and waving after hitting one amazing shot after another. 

“I got here Monday afternoon,” he said. “My locker was right by the window overlooking the putting green and overlooking like the beach and the ocean.  I was thinking to myself, ‘I just have a good feeling about this week.’  I said it to (caddy) J.P (Fitzgerald) and I said it to my dad and I said it to my whole team; something about this just feels right. It's funny how things work out.”   

According to Padraig Harrington, who has known the McIlroys since Rory was a child: “Rory’s proving that when he plays well, he plays like Tiger played well. Tiger turned up for a few years where if he brought his A-Game, the rest of us struggled to compete. Rory is showing up with his A-Game and everybody is going to struggle.” 

There will be the inevitable statistical comparisons. McIlroy’s second major victory came in his 17th major start. Tiger’s came in his 18th. He was three months younger than Tiger was when he won his second major. And he is already ahead on the margin of victory front.  

“I've won my second major at the same age as he had,” McIlroy said. “But he went on that incredible run like 2000, 2001, 2002 and won so many. You know, I'd love to sit up here and tell you that I'm going to do the same thing, but I just don't know. It's been great to win my first major last year and to back that up with another one this year; I can't ask for any more.  I just want to keep working hard, keep practicing, and hopefully there are a few more of these in my closet when my career finishes.”  

Honest and modest: The game needs someone like Rory McIlroy, not because it needs a dominant player to supplant Tiger, but because it needs a charming gentleman to recover from him. 

As long as he keeps living up to his potential, golf may well have found its next great icon.