Rory McIlroy still in awe of Tiger Woods' prowess
Woods won the trinity to set the standard and then he did it again
Rory McIlroy emerged last night from the most intensive four weeks of his life with even higher regard for the world-beating feats of Tiger Woods.
Golf at this level is a game of attrition and, over the past month, McIlroy discovered the true extent of the pressure and stress Tiger overcame to win The Open, Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA in quick succession.
Woods actually completed this blessed trinity twice.
In 2000 he romped away with the Claret Jug at St Andrews; beat Bob May in sudden death for the PGA of America's giant Wanamaker Trophy at Valhalla before winning the NEC Invitational, as it was known then, by nine strokes at Firestone.Six years later, Tiger brilliantly was a man apart in The Open at Hoylake; beat Shaun Micheel by five in the US PGA at Medinah and finished eight clear in the Bridgestone as he completed the fifth of his eight victories in Akron.
Woods might have made it look relatively easy but, after walking in Tiger's shoes for the past month, McIlroy only now fully comprehends how difficult it is to try and beat the world's finest, week after week after week.
"When you get into this position, you appreciate even more what Tiger has achieved and the runs he gone on in his career," he said, admitting: "You don't fully understand the difficulties involved until you actually go through it yourself."
McIlroy had a week off to recuperate after his six-strokes, wire-to-wire win at The Open, then came from three behind 54-hole leader Sergio Garcia on Sunday at Firestone to claim his first World Golf Championship, propelling himself back to No 1 in the global rankings.
The 25-year-old had intended to travel from Akron to Louisville on Monday and play nine holes at Valhalla, a course he'd never stepped foot on before. Instead, when he arrived, he completed a few formalities, then "gave myself the day off just to recharge a little bit.
"It's more fatiguing emotionally and mentally after you win tournaments than when it is physically," explained McIlroy, who played only nine holes on Tuesday and completed his reconnaissance by playing 18 holes with Darren Clarke in the dawn's early light on Wednesday.
Though he opened brightly on Thursday, playing the front nine at Valhalla in three-under, McIlroy appeared to hit the proverbial wall at 10 with a double-bogey seven that bore many of the hallmarks of mental fatigue.
In fact, the Holywood native went over the fence and out of bounds when he pulled his 3-wood from the fairway so far left, it bounced hard off a cart path and into oblivion. The tiredness showed when he dropped another ball and hit the next shot long and left of the green with the same club.
A three-putt bogey four at 11 sent whispers around the vast galleries but it's a measure of the dramatic change in McIlroy this year that, instead of allowing frustration drag him down, he channelled his anger.
Playing with the sort of simmering fury we've often seen from Tiger, he birdied the next four holes in succession and picked-up another at the last for a remarkable 66 to lie just one off the lead.
"I think you have to take whatever you are feeling inside and try and turn it into a positive," he explained.
"I was hot and it's trying to use that fire as a fuel to sort of propel yourself forward. It was great. I think it just shows where my game is mentally right now, as well, that I was able to do that."
Small errors continued to surface, even as McIlroy posted the low round of the day on Friday, a 67, to take the lead into the weekend. And he needed to show steel resolve in the face of fatigue on Saturday to stay one stroke ahead through 54 holes.
Another crisis point was passed at the fourth that afternoon after McIlroy pulled that pesky 3-wood, this time off the tee, deep into the hazard then saved par by holing an 11-foot putt.
Much has been made of McIlroy's driving this summer but the putter was his best friend on Saturday. It helped ensure he'd bogey just twice as he sleep-walked through an untidy five-hole patch in mid-round and it was still hot as he made birdie in three of his final four holes.
Woods left for home on Friday, conceding that it was going to take time to restore his strength and conditioning after back surgery in March to the point where he can once again compete even remotely like Tiger of old.
McIlroy, like the rest of the golfing world, has long admired Tiger's ability to thrive under pressure as he won seven of 11 Majors between the 1999 PGA and 2002 US Open or six of 14 between 2005 and 2008.
Along with that Open-PGA-Firestone treble in 2000, Woods also racked-up six other victories on the PGA Tour that year, including the US Open at Pebble Beach. And in 2006, between Hoylake and the PGA at Medinah, he also won the Buick Open for good measure!
Yet the trial-by-fire McIlroy faced at Hoylake, Firestone and Valhalla was more demanding than Tiger's!
Thanks to changes in the golf calendar, McIlroy had to try and complete his hat-trick in just 21 days, while Woods had 37 days in 2000 and 35 in 2006, with three weeks between The Open and US PGA on both occasions.
Yet nobody in the world today has better cause to understand or appreciate Tiger's brilliance than Rory McIlroy.