In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on June 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Tiger Woods WAS watching as Rory McIlroy did the best impersonation of Tiger we’ll likely ever see; totally dominating the field at the U.S. Open, winning by 8 shots, and in record-setting fashion.

The injured Tiger was not present at Congressional, but his presence was certainly felt as the inevitable comparisons with Rory began. The youngest this… the youngest that… the lowest this… the lowest that… ad infinitum.

The question is, “Was this the best thing that could have happened to Tiger right now, or the worst?”

Tiger has largely been out of action since the Masters when he injured the MCL in his left knee and strained his left Achilles tendon while hitting a shot during the third round in Augusta. Since then, he managed a mere 9 holes at The Players Championship before withdrawing; further damaging the knee on his opening tee shot.

The 22-year-old McIlroy’s performance at the Open is clearly a shot right over Tiger’s bow at a time when Tiger’s in no condition to fire back. But, Tiger let everyone know he got the message when he sent one of his own congratulating Rory on his sensational win. That message also had an underlying tone. Beneath the “Hey, great job!” was a subliminal reminder that Tiger, at least in his mind, is still lurking and, theoretically, the two could go head-to-head in mid-July at Royal St. George’s in the 2011 British Open.

This, naturally, will require Tiger to get healthy and fast. The worry is that Rory’s show in Bethesda might make Tiger feel the need to get back into action too fast.  Frankly, the 35-year-old Woods hasn’t been physically 100 percent since he won the 2008 U.S. Open. Sure, he was second at the ’09 PGA Championship and tied for fourth at this year’s Masters. But, something’s missing. He’s not as feared as he once was. He seems to lack that killer instinct where if he was in the hunt Sunday, the prize was his for the taking. I guess sore knees will do that to a guy.

The 13-year age difference between Tiger and Rory is even more pronounced in the light of Tiger’s health. The power and torque generated by a golf swing can apply serious stress to a golfer’s knees, tendons, joints, etc. And, if a golfer doesn’t have his “legs”, he has a problem. And Tiger definitely has a problem that may not be so easily fixed by a few weeks of rest.

Tiger’s tentative schedule calls for him to play at Aronimink outside of Philly in his AT&T National tournament beginning June 30th and then turnaround on July 14th for the first round at the British. Will Tiger stick with this plan? Should he? Can he afford to skip his own event to continue to rest, and then enter a major tournament with roughly 3 months of rust and a knee that might not enjoy the overnight flight to London?

Tiger keeps saying he’s “committed to his long-term health.” But, could the sudden emergence of McIlroy jeopardize that commitment? In other words, can Tiger keep his ego in check long enough to get a new bill of health before tackling an opponent who literally might be what Tiger himself was at age 22?

For now, let’s just say that Tiger’s decision-making has been in question ever since that infamous 2009 SUV accident.  And, patience might not exactly be Tiger’s strong suit at a time when he’s watching his own records fall to a guy who some are already predicting is capable of duplicating the “Tiger Slam.”

The British Open’s own website has declared Rory McIlroy the odds-on favorite to win. (And, not just because Rory ran away with our Open.) McIlroy has shown flashes of great potential; at this year’s Masters (before the disastrous final round 80 cost him a 4-stroke lead), at last year’s PGA, and at last year’s British where he carded a stunning opening round 63 at St. Andrews, blew himself up with an 80, then rallied to finish tied for third.

McIlroy also has a “Tiger-esque backstory” which includes the tale of him driving a golf ball 40 yards at age 2, and the story of his dad betting friends that the then 16-year-old Rory would win the British by age 25. And, add to that, his “Silver Medal” (low amateur) performance in his 2007 British Open debut, and his first major victory before age 23.

Rory also has that “IT” factor going for him. He’s got a great swing, a great swagger, and an affable personality. He’s also got the golf media singing his praises, “never hits a bad shot,” “plays quickly and confidently,” and “he’s shown he can handle adversity” in the aftermath of the Masters’ disaster.

That said, it needs to be pointed out that Rory’s record 16-under 268 performance at Congressional actually pales in comparison to Tiger’s show at Pebble Beach in 2000 when he carded the former U.S. Open record 12-under 272 to win by 15 shots (!) on a much tougher layout. Tiger followed that with an 8-stroke win at St. Andrews (tying the post-1900 victory margin record), and then with wins at the PGA and ’01 Masters to complete the “Slam.”

Let’s see if Rory McIlroy can match that feat (or come close to it) before we permanently label him “Tiger II.”

Let’s also see if “Tiger I” can keep “Tiger I” focused on his health long enough to truly be the 100% “Tiger of Old,” and then, and only then, turn to face golf’s newest threat to his supremacy.

Somehow though, I just can’t picture Tiger postponing his comeback until 2012. Not with “Tiger II” in the hunt.

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:

  1. Tiger Woods announced June 22nd that he would NOT play in the AT&T National (June 30th to July 3rd) to continue his recovery from leg injuries. “Doctor’s orders,” was the quote from Tiger on Twitter. He did not mention his plans for the British Open which begins on July 14th.

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