McIlroy usurps Tiger with a smile

Fresh off a valiant win in Singapore, Italian teenager Matteo Manassero inadvertently acknowledged the new world order in golf.

“Rory plays a game now that not many of us can match,” he said.

It wasn’t so long ago that such genuflecting was reserved for Tiger Woods.

But as the golf season draws to an end, it’s McIlroy who has won the PGA of America’s Player of the Year title, holds the world No. 1 by a safe margin, has claimed the money titles on both the US and European tours and is a lock to win the PGA Tour Player of the Year.

It’s true that it all looked so different on July 1, when Woods won his third tournament, the AT&T National, and McIlroy was mired in a slump.

But after that, Woods couldn’t close — he finished outside the top 11 only once in seven of his last eight tournaments without winning — and a rejuvenated McIlroy went on a tear, winning the PGA Championship as well as two FedEX Cup playoff events.

So to the victor, the spoils.

As Woods used to like to remind us, it’s all about the “W’s,” and Rory finished with four, including a major.

To rub salt into the wound, Woods can’t even claim the PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year award because they’re not giving one out this year.

So he’ll spend the winter like a Cubs fan, muttering, “Wait till next year.”

But what will 2013 bring?

Woods is certainly still good enough to reclaim his throne. His long game has improved greatly, and the scrambling is coming around. He needs to find a way to hit wedges closer and remember how to will those 6-footers into the hole.

The difference now, however, is that Woods’ fate isn’t entirely in his own hands. Whether he gets back to the top will depend on McIlroy, whose game is every bit as good as that of his boyhood hero’s.

Will there be a sophomore slump, or will he keep getting better?

McIlroy, who’s all but officially joined Woods in the Nike stable — securing his future to the tune of at least $200 million — will be the hunted, not the hunter, which changes the psychology.

David Duval, for instance, couldn’t find motivation once he reached No. 1 and proceeded to fall off the face of the Earth.

Padraig Harrington won three majors — though while Woods was recovering from knee surgery — but his reaction to that success was to tinker even more with his swing. And Harrington kept fiddling as his putting went south, followed by his world ranking.

Woods was impervious to such issues as golf’s king for more than a decade, but it helped that not only was his game suited to the task, but so was his personality.

Is Rory’s?

He’s not the bloodthirsty type and doesn’t seem nearly as driven as Woods was at 23. But he’s such a prodigious talent, he might not need the Sunday afternoon death stare. He won two majors by eight shots each smiling the entire way.

Given the way he rolled his eyes when asked about Nick Faldo’s view that champions need to be “aloof” in order to win, it’s safe to say McIlroy won’t be going to the dark side anytime soon.

“I just want to try to keep improving as a player,” he said this week in Hong Kong.

“Picking up these awards at the end of the year is always a nice honor, and it’s very special, and looking ahead to next year, yeah, I just want to keep improving, keep trying to become a better golfer. If I can do that, then, hopefully, the tournament wins will come and more majors will come with that, also.

“I’m not putting any sort of goals or targets out there. I just want to keep trying to get better.”

In his favor is the fact that he’s not — like Woods — obsessed with swing mechanics. McIlroy knows his swing is good and has focused on getting the ball in the hole in the fewest number of strokes, something Woods once did better than anyone.

“We are always trying to improve,” McIlroy said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to overhaul your game or try and change your swing in any way. Just make improvements on different aspects of the game, whether that be your bunker play or your chipping from semi rough or your ability to hit the shot left to right or right to left.”

Harrington doesn’t see McIlroy backpedaling next season.

"He used to surprise us when he first turned pro, but I don’t think anything Rory does surprises us anymore,” the Irishman said.

Then there’s always the chance that McIlroy’s challenge becomes easier because he’ll never see the best of Woods, as Faldo predicted in a radio interview this week. Faldo said that Woods hasn’t truly recovered from the humiliation of the tabloid scandal that ravaged his life.

“(The revelations) have done more damage than people would give them credit for,” Faldo told the BBC. “It’s wrecked that wonderful tranquility you get of going to a golf course, tipping out a bag of balls and hitting them from 9 to 5 and just thinking of golf.

“He has shattered that peace. He won’t get that back. Once you lose that concentration and that ability to become completely engrossed in your golf . . . then slowly things have changed for him.

“His swing — physically, technically, mentally, karma — it’s a harder climb right now.

“Sure, he could come back and do things, but he won’t be dominant like he was.”