Tiger Woods’ first PGA Tour victory in 30 months at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill two weekends ago was a perfectly timed return to form for the former world number one. Golf fans will now get their wish and see the clash of two generations as Woods faces golf’s growing superstar, Rory McIlroy.
Golf was brought to new heights by Woods’ meteoric rise to stardom in the late 90s and 2000s, with his dominance bringing new levels of intrigue and quality to the game. Tiger stormed on to the world stage by becoming the youngest player to win a major at the Masters in 2007 and he looked set to rewrite all of golf’s records before personal problems derailed his career in 2009.
Woods accumulated 14 major titles (2nd all-time), 72 PGA Tour titles (3rd) and 38 European Tour titles (3rd), while Tiger also holds the record for the most consecutive (281) and overall (623) weeks at world number one. Woods is the youngest player to win the Career Grand Slam and was the first to win them all in a row when he completed the “Tiger Slam” in 2000-2001.Tiger’s greatest strength throughout this period was his ability to finish, with the former world number one an imposing 14-1 in majors when holding or sharing the lead going into the final round.
What golf lacked during Tiger’s glory years was a great rivalry. Phil Mickelson had moments of brilliance but could never match Woods’ ruthless winning streak. The emergence of McIlroy has fans dreaming of a great battle between one of the greatest of all time and a potential future star. Memories are being kindled of Jack Nicklaus vs Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead vs Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus vs Tom Watson and Nick Faldo vs Greg Norman.
McIlroy’s rise through the ranks is strikingly similar to Woods’, with both being golf prodigies in their amateur days. Both also claimed their first majors in convincing fashions at a young age. Tiger won by an incredible 12 shots when he became the youngest player to win a major at the 1997 Masters, while McIlroy became the second youngest when he won by a dominating eight shots at the 2011 US Open.
McIlroy famously wilted with the pressure in last year’s Masters, shooting a final round 80 to finish joint 15th after leading by four entering the final round. Those nerves have likely been forgotten after McIlroy dominated at the US Open two months later, however. If Woods and McIlroy get embroiled in a final day shootout, both players are in form
It will be interesting to see how the crowds take to this potential rivalry. The American crowds immediately took to McIlroy’s aggressive style and his maiden major victory at the US Open was well received by US fans and experts. Tiger’s stock has taken a hit over the last two years, but he is still the darling of the American audience.
The Northern Irishman’s consistently brilliant form at the start of 2012 saw him become world number one for a short time and he enters the Masters as the second favourite. Tiger’s recent victory, meanwhile, sees him named favourite to claim his fifth green jacket at Augusta.