Keeping Score

Rory McIlroy Makes Golf History: Can He Make You Feel Bad for Tiger?

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy tees off the 15th hole as marshals watch during the second round of the 2011 U.S. Open golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, June 17, 2011.

It took a historic performance from Rory McIlroy to make Tiger Woods a sympathetic figure.

What must Tiger, who is missing this year’s U.S. Open with knee and Achilles injuries, be thinking? At Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, MD, McIlroy has pulled a Tiger — of old — and shot an 11-under-par through the first two rounds of the U.S. Open. That’s the lowest 36-hole score in the history of the 111-year-old event. McIlroy, 22, entered the clubhouse up eight strokes.

Meanwhile, the current Tiger — who is the 15th-ranked player in the world, and has struggled badly since resuming his career in 2010, following his sordid sex scandal — can do nothing. Woods can’t stop this new kid from taking over the game. We may be witnessing a true sea change in golf. McIlroy has contended in the last three majors, and was poised to run away with one at some point.

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For the better part of a decade, we’ve been waiting for a player with Tiger-like talent to emerge. Someone to act as his rival, to be Arnold Palmer to his Jack Nicklaus. If McIlroy is indeed that player, what if Woods is now too old, too physically and emotionally scarred, to hang with him? Ah, what might have been.

Okay, we must be careful, and not get ahead of ourselves. After all, McIlroy blew this year’s Master’s. He entered the final round with a four-stroke lead, but melted down and shot an 80 on the final day. But after Friday’s performance, you can’t help but wonder if you’re witnessing something special. After sinking birdies on the 16th and 17th holes, McIlroy, who is from Northern Ireland, got to 13-under-par, the lowest score at any point in the history of the U.S. Open.

The greens at the U.S. Open are famous for their speed and deception. McIlroy sank putts as if they lied on a flat practice green at the local muni. On the 8th hole, his approach shot hit the back of the green, then spun into the hole for an eagle.  Phil Mickelson, McIlroy’s playing partner, clapped.

A huge gallery flocked to McIlroy, just like it used to do for Tiger. As McIlroy marches toward his first major, the howls will only grow louder. When’s the next time Tiger hears those roars?

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