By sunset on Easter, when Jonathan Byrd is being ushered into the clubhouse for the winner's dinner in a borrowed club coat, all this Tiger-Rory talk might seem a little rash. But the fact is, this moment, before Augusta draws her curtain, belongs to them.
Right now, Woods remains by far the dominant figure in the game. Bay Hill proved that all over again, and so does the response to the Hank Haney book and everything else. If Tiger should win his fifth Masters next week? Welcome to Tigermania, Part II: Balding and Beautiful. But should McIlroy win his first? Well, golf will have its first two-name conversation since the last days of the cardigan. Jack and Arnold, find Mr. Player and get yourselves down to the 1st tee, would you please? A weirdly warm March is over. This 76th Masters needs to begin.
Don't even try to compare them, Rory with his swing from God, Tiger's swing (these days) assembled on the practice tee. (After a Friday 65 at Bay Hill, Woods lukewarmed his ball striking to reporters and went to the range.) But Tiger and Rory share two important things: They are both only children, and they were both golfing prodigies. Tiger was 21 when he won his first major, the 1997 Masters, by 12 shots. Rory was 22 when he won his first and only, last year's U.S. Open, by eight. Tiger, at 36, has 14 major titles. Augusta will be the 14th major in which Rory has played. He's what Tiger once was: a kid with a future. Is Rory in the same class as Woods? Set your time machine to 2026.
Woods became Woods by way of an überfocus that the game hadn't seen since Ben Hogan. Rory's becoming Rory on the back of a flowing, well-oiled swing that brings to mind a racehorse on a grassy flat: hooves in the turf, sod flying, breathless power. The fact is, focus has a longer shelf life than a glorious swing, no matter what the life and times of Fred Couples might suggest.
Fred won at Augusta 20 years ago with Joe LaCava on his bag, and now the big guy is caddying for Tiger, who calls him Joey. Wherever he is, whomever he's with, Tiger creates a boys' club.
It fits, because his father was Army, and camouflage pervades Tiger's worldview. Haney—best-selling author slash TV personality slash swing guru—knows that, of course, and he got Tiger all wound up by leaking a couple of Navy SEAL tidbits from his new book. Woods wants nothing to do with the tome by his ex-coach and former friend. But while evading a reporter's question at the Honda Classic about his interest in the SEALs, Woods couldn't help himself. He used the word book four times in a single terse response. From the master of deflection, it was so strange. It's obvious that Woods is done with Haney for breaking rank, sharing secrets, talking about their relationship. (Blech!) Tiger has moved on. At Bay Hill, Woods praised the swing work he's doing with the technocrat Sean Foley.
Mark Steinberg, Tiger's agent, called the book's eve-of-Augusta release date "disruptive timing." But The Big Miss—the book, not his formerly off-the-map driving—will probably help Woods at the Masters. After all, who plays better red-light, red-ass golf than Tiger Woods? Two years ago at Augusta, Billy Payne spoke about his disappointment in Woods. The club chairman offered the golfer a path to redemption. Woods's public response to Payne was benign. ("I was disappointed in myself too.") But Tiger was hot. Playing for the first time in five months and with his home life falling apart, Woods tied for fourth. Last year at Augusta, despite many misses, big and small, he did the same. Who would be surprised if his finish this year is better?
At the Honda, where McIlroy won by two over Woods, Tiger closed with a 62 on a hard course in a stiff wind and was the leader in the clubhouse with McIlroy still playing. Later Rory said, "To be honest, I was thinking, Could it not just have been anyone else?" How charming and candid and fun.
The next week, at Doral, where Woods WD'd mid-round with a strained Achilles tendon, McIlroy finished third. He signed, slapped himself across the thigh, stood in front of a microphone and said he hoped that Woods would be back soon, for Tiger's sake and the game's, too. How magnanimous.
Three days later McIlroy went to the White House for a state dinner. Did you see the snaps, with that polka-dotted pocket square in his Alexander Nash (whoever that is) tuxedo jacket and that Alfred E. Neuman grin on his face? McIlroy tweeted up the jacket and later the soiree: Unbelievable experience at the White House last night! Big thanks to @BarackObama for the invite! We'll get that golf swing sorted soon! You can be sure Rory typed those 136 confident characters himself and that he meant each and every one of them. The kid's living large and loving it.