Rory McIlroy’s eight-shot victory in the 111th United States Open rewrites the record books, but what of its deeper meaning?
Certainly, it serves to confirm that generational — as well as geographic — change is sweeping across the sport.
The past five majors have gone to twentysomethings. And for the first time in a century, five majors have passed without an American winner.
McIlroy’s was truly a rousing performance to behold at Congressional Country Club, and not just because he played golf like a Mozart while the rest of them were Salieris.
What was just as impressive was that when the time came to slam the door on the chasing pack, he did so with a composure — and ruthlessness — we’ve not seen from the 22-year-old.
As he won his breakthrough major — so soon after imploding with a four-shot lead at the Masters — there was, understandably, no shortage of those willing to anoint him as golf’s next great thing.
"I think this kid’s going to have a great career,” said Jack Nicklaus, “I don’t think there’s any question about it. He’s got all the components. He’s got a lot of people rooting for him. He’s a nice kid. He’s got a pleasant personality.
"He’s humble when he needs to be humble, and he’s confident when he needs to be confident."
Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said winning majors was McIlroy’s “destiny.”
“I think Rory has set himself apart now,” he said.
“There might be people capable of winning a major, but there’s not too many people capable of dominating and running away from the field in a major.”
Martin Kaymer, who won the PGA Championship last fall, said that “the way he plays golf, it’s close to perfect.”
Graeme McDowell, a Northern Irishman who handed over the US Open trophy to a countryman and friend, was even more glowing in his praise.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen,” McDowell said.
“I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger when he was in his real pomp, and this guy is the best I’ve ever seen, simple as that.
“He’s great for golf. He’s a breath of fresh air for the game and perhaps we’re ready for golf’s next superstar.
“And maybe Rory is it.”
Even my old friend, the legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins, who first watched a US Open as a boy in 1941 and has covered 59, was sold on McIlroy.
“I put this up there with the first coming of Nicklaus in ‘62 and what Tiger did at Augusta in ‘97,” he said on Sunday.
It’s all an understandable reaction to the brilliance McIlroy showed over four days.
But is it not a tad premature?
Last May, I watched McIlroy play even better than he did this week in Charlotte, when he shot a course-record 62 in the final round at Quail Hollow — which was more like a US Open setup than a soft, benign Congressional was this week — to become the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since Woods.
But rather than go on to greater heights after that, he stalled.
Lee Westwood is one of McIlroy’s closest mates. His analysis is particularly sobering.
“It’s amazing he’s only won three tournaments the amount of time he gets into contention,” Westwood said Sunday, “Maybe this will give him that impetus to go forward and win more often.”
Even McDowell acknowledged that McIlroy’s got weaknesses.
“His putting has been the only question mark and his little bit of perhaps, how do you call it, lack of being able to close to this point,” he said.
Of course, he addressed both of those inadequacies very well at Congressional. But has he mastered them forever?
Asia’s first major winner, Y.E. Yang, who played alongside McIlroy for the final two rounds was impressed, but also sounded a note of caution.
“My impression is that he hasn’t reached his prime yet. I think he’s still growing, and it’s just scary to think about,” he said.
“(But) 18 wins let alone 18 majors is not an easy task. It’s easy to talk about it, but it’s not easy at all.
“And while he’s (trying to break the Nicklaus majors record), there are going to be more Rory McIlroys coming onto the scene.”
And let’s not forget, for a bit of perspective, that last summer at the home of golf, St. Andrews, young South African Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open by seven shots. It was a Tiger-esque performance, but as Oosthuizen has shown, following up on greatness isn’t easy.
One major does not an era of domination make.
This was McIlroy’s 100th tournament as a professional on the US and European tours. He has three wins. After 100 tournaments, Woods had 28 wins and almost twice as many top-10 finishes.
“He’s got the world in front of him,” said Steve Stricker, “Fundamentally, he’s as good as we’ve seen ever in my era, take Tiger Woods out of it.
“When Tiger was going well, that’s as good as I’ve seen.”
In the end, it’s unfair to start placing these kind of burdens on McIlroy.
He himself understands their danger.
Heavy lies the crown.
“It’s nice that people say that, ‘He could win 20 major championships,’ but at the end of the day, I’ve won one,” he said.
“I obviously want to add to that tally. But you can’t let what other people think of you influence what you have to do. You have to just go out there, work hard, believe in yourself.”
In other words, let’s let him be Rory McIlroy rather than trying to make him the next Tiger Woods.