(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
For more months than we care to think about, the only real question in golf has been this: What’s wrong with Tiger?
Maybe now we should be asking what’s going so well with golf.
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Plenty, if you judge from a Sunday afternoon in Florida, where a new star helped cement his claim to greatness even as he heard roars coming down the stretch that could only mean Tiger Woods was on the move.
No. 1 in the world was on the line for Rory McIlroy, but that wasn’t even the biggest subplot of the day. That was owned by a player in bright red whose game finally matched the brilliance of his shirt.
Woods’ 62 may not have put a scare into McIlroy, but it did put everyone on notice that he can still play golf. Doing it on Sunday after it’s been so long since he’s won a real tournament screamed out Woods was, indeed, back.
The only question is how much it still matters. To the crowd count, yes, and maybe even to the count always in Woods’ head – the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
But there’s a new attraction in golf, a curly haired 22-year-old from Northern Ireland who is just as much fun to watch as Woods in his prime and a lot more fun to be around. McIlroy’s boyish charm and obvious joy for the game are in stark contrast to Woods, and he seems so approachable that one fan on the 17th tee on Saturday asked him what kind of shampoo he uses.
But the way he stared down Woods in the final round may be what separates him from all the pretenders that came before.
McIlroy never backed off, even when Woods made eagle on the final hole to pull within one in the Honda Classic. He heard the roars from the 18th green, then stepped up and calmly knocked in a birdie putt on No. 13 on his way to a win that made him the youngest No. 1 player in the world since – you guessed it – Woods early in his career.
McIlroy may not be the next Woods, but that’s an unfair comparison. Woods in his prime was so dominant the odds are there will never be anyone like him again. And he showed Sunday that he’s not done yet, something that should sell tickets and spark TV ratings the rest of the year.
Still, there’s something about McIlroy that’s appealing to watch, something about him that oozes star power. We’ve known it since his runaway win at the U.S. Open last year, and he confirmed it on a breezy day made even better by the pressure from the still big footsteps of Woods. While Woods was magnificent, McIlroy was steady and that was all he needed to become the first No. 1 since Woods that casual golf fans actually care about.
”It was always a dream of mine to become the world No. 1 and the best player in the world or whatever you want to call it,” McIlroy said. ”But I didn’t know that I would be able to get here this quickly.”
But he did, barely five years after turning pro as a teenager and with Woods in front of him in all his red shirt, fist-pumping glory. Woods’ swing is different but he looked much like the Tiger of past – except, that is, when he waded in the crowd of autograph seekers he used to ignore and signed away as McIlroy played his way in.
That was better than the way Woods started the week, which began with a testy exchange with a writer who had the temerity to ask him about a book his old swing coach, Hank Haney, wrote. Excerpts from the book seem fairly innocuous and don’t even address the sex scandal that brought Woods down, yet he felt compelled to have his agent issue a statement mocking both the book and its author.
Maybe Woods needs the friction to get his playing juices flowing. Or maybe he just needs to feel in control. Either way, he found a way in the last two rounds to get a balky putter going and put at least the thought of a scare into McIlroy.
Other players, though, no longer fold the moment Woods shows up with his clubs. Certainly not McIlroy, who already has a major in his pocket and a short game that rivals that of Woods in his prime.
Holding off Woods on Sunday will only add to his pedigree.
”This golf season just got a lot more spicy,” said countryman Graeme McDowell.
They’ll get together again next week on Doral’s Blue Monster, only this time a very hot Phil Mickelson will join the fun. For some the golf year doesn’t begin until the azaleas start blooming in Georgia, but already this year we’ve seen Mickelson shoot a 64 to win at Pebble Beach, Woods fire a 62 to nearly pull off a shocker himself, and two players come from more than a half dozen back to win in the final round of tournaments. Television ratings are up, and golf suddenly seems fun again, even to the casual fan.
Meanwhile, the Masters – which McIlroy led by four strokes before a final-round meltdown last year – is just a month away, and already the buzz is building about a battle for the green jacket at Augusta National.
”Exciting times,” McIlroy said.
Indeed they are, for a personable young champion who is now officially the best golfer in the world.
Pretty exciting, too, for the game of golf itself.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg