One of the brightest young stars in golf, Rory McIlroy has been making news over the last few weeks for giving his opinion on Tiger Woods, and there really isn’t much good to say about the game of the No. 5 player in the world.
Yet the perception is that McIlroy is taking one too many jabs at Woods, and that he is soon to join the list of players whose criticism comes back to haunt them.
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But that assumes it was criticism in the first place.
In an essay under McIlroy’s byline in Sports Illustrated’s “Golf Plus” section, McIlroy said that Woods is not playing as well as he did a couple of years ago, let alone a decade ago when no one was close to him in the game.
“I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did,” McIlroy said in the essay. “He never seemed like he would make a mistake. It’s not that he’s playing badly. He’s simply playing badly by Tiger’s standards. He’s playing like an ordinary golfer. People expect more of him because of what he has achieved.”
Indeed, there are questions as to whether Woods can rule golf the way he did in 2000, when his nine wins included three straight majors. Or the way he did after his father died in 2006, when he won 18 of 33 tournaments worldwide, four of eight majors and had a seven-month stretch without ever losing.
Can anything else be disputed?
The problem is that Woods, through a dozen years of unprecedented dominance, has created a culture of being off limits to other players giving honest answers.
And remember, answers usually are the product of a question.
This only looks bad on two counts. One is that it’s easy to pile on Woods right now, even though he has only himself to blame. The other is that the commentary is coming from a 21-year-old with all of two career victories, who has never faced Woods at his best.
“That’s the answer a 21-year-old would give, isn’t it?” Lee Westwood said last week with a smile. “I think having played with Tiger since 1997 or something like that … there’s an old saying that class is permanent and form is fickle. He’s the classiest player I’ve ever played with and I’d be wise enough to know not to write him off.
“I’ve seen him play poorly and win tournaments,” Westwood said. “He doesn’t necessarily have to get back to where he was.”
And then he whimsically added, “I’ll have a word with Rory later.”
Last year, McIlroy talked about Woods before the Ryder Cup, when the American had yet to be added to the U.S. team as a captain’s pick. In an interview with an Irish newspaper, he said he expected Woods to be in Wales.
“I would love to face him,” McIlroy said. “Unless his game rapidly improves … I think anyone in the European team would fancy their chances against him.”
The interview took place a week after Woods finished next-to-last at Firestone, where he had won seven times and never finished out of the top 10. Woods had his worst 72-hole score as a professional that week. He didn’t look capable of beating anyone.
A month later, there were rumors swirling around Cog Hill that Woods had told McIlroy, “Be careful what you wish for.” Woods denied that, although he was aware of the comments. And while he mentioned McIlroy in context with Stephen Ames, Woods also gave the kid a break. “At least Rory said, ‘Unless my game improves,”’ Woods said, a concession to fact.
The reference to Ames came from the 2006 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, when Ames was the No. 64 seed and jokingly said on the practice range about his chances, “Anything can happen -- especially where he’s hitting the ball.”
It was harmless humor, although the quote became far more serious in the “lift, clean and paste” era of the Internet that eliminated all context. Asked about it after the match, Woods only mentioned the score: 9 and 8.
There have been others. Rory Sabbatini once said Woods looked as “beatable as ever” after losing to him at Quail Hollow, and three months later, Woods went from a one-shot deficit to Sabbatini to an eight-shot victory at Firestone.
Some of these grudges are overcooked.
Woods wasn’t bothered by Sabbatini’s comments as much as he was Sabbatini withdrawing from the Chevron World Challenge before the final round. And while Vijay Singh’s caddie wrote, “Tiger Who?” on the back of his cap at the Presidents Cup before Woods’ 2-and-1 victory, he and Singh have long had mutual respect for each other.
McIlroy’s only playful jab came two weeks ago at the Accenture Match Play Championship, when he was asked about a potential changing of the guard with so many good young players. He started to say that Woods and Phil Mickelson have not gotten any worse when he paused and said with a smile, “Well, yeah, I mean I don’t think Phil has gotten any worse.”
If he is guilty of anything, McIlroy believes it’s getting his message out the right way. He recently saw an interview with Sean Foley, Woods’ swing coach, who said that Woods had spoiled golf fans with a level never before seen. And with the depth on tours across oceans, it might be hard to repeat that.
Maybe the kid should keep it short, for it was on Twitter where McIlroy made himself perfectly clear.
“Hate that the media thinks I’m taking jabs at Tiger all the time. Best that’s ever lived. Ever. Just not playing his best at the minute. If he plays his best we’re all screwed. Hard to dodge the Tiger questions when you get 10 every interview you do.”