Like most sports, American golf interest builds and peaks on greatness rivaled by greatness: Arnold vs. Jack. Nicklaus vs. Watson. Greg Norman vs. Sunday at the Majors. Tiger vs. Vijay, then Tiger vs. Phil.
Now, with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson continuing to age their way down the money list to the bad side of tournament cuts, what pair picks up the baton to birdie professional golf into the hearts of a new generation in the United States?
Or, rather, Rory McIlroy vs. Who?
That McIlroy’s half of any such duo is a given. He’s held No. 1 in the world too long to consider his current reign as some temporary thing until either Woods or Mickelson gets himself together. In 2014, he finished first on the money list, first in the World Golf Rankings and held up the trophy at the past two majors.
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“Of course, I want to be that guy. I said it last year, golf is waiting for someone like that to step forward, put their hand up and win the big tournaments,” McIlroy said. “I think it’s harder to become as dominant these days with technology and course conditions and the depth of the fields. Everyone’s got a lot more knowledge and knows a lot more about the game and everyone just works harder and are more professional at what they do.
“This is the position I want to be in, and I want to be in it as long as I can.”
Read McIlroy’s reason for playing next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando and there seems to be an assumption of an adult king’s responsibility:
“Priorities have changed, and it’s a big event. What Arnold Palmer has done for our game and what he’s done for the PGA Tour, it was about time that I showed up there and played in his tournament.”
So, who’s the Brady to McIlroy’s Manning, the Frazier to McIlroy’s Ali?
McIlroy’s from Northern Ireland. Widespread wearing of Lionel Messi jerseys and solid ratings for the English Premier League don’t change the fact that the U.S. mass market still responds best to U.S. athletes.
That points to, among others, Jordan Spieth, last year’s Cadillac Championship winner Patrick Reed or 2012 and 2014 Masters champion Bubba Watson.
Opposites, facile or complete, create the most combustible chemical reactions. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova. Palmer’s lean and conventionally handsome vs. Nicklaus, the chunky blond kid.
The physical opposite to McIlroy’s relatively spare physique and still-boyish face would be Reed’s thick build.
Reed’s swagger possibly exceeds McIlroy’s. His least demonstrative fist pump oozes confidence. He’s got the big checks to legitimize that self-esteem with four PGA Tour wins at 24 years old. The three other golfers in the past 20 years with four wins by 25 years old are Woods, Sergio Garcia and McIlroy.
“It always means a lot,” Reed said of being in such a grouping. “The main thing is I feel like I just keep on improving day in and day out. I feel like I’m improved on the little things that I’ve needed to be a little more consistent and, luckily, we’ve been in the hunt coming down on Sunday. We’ve done pretty well.”
If there’s an all-around contrast with McIlroy, it would seem to be the 36-year-old Watson, ranked second in the world. Both satisfy the crowd via the axiom “drive for show, putt for dough.” McIlroy’s got a classic swing and Watson’s a guy who never had a golf lesson. Watson’s the MacGyver of the PGA Tour, getting out of terrible situations by trying wild shots most fans wish they possessed the courage or talent to attempt.
And that’s part of the regular guy appeal you’d expect from a “Bubba” (given name “Gerry Lester.”). Watson’s eschewed swing coaches and psychologists. He’s proud of his religious faith and being a family guy. He’s active on social media and will engage fans.
“He’s one of my best friends. He’s out there. He’s himself,” one-time PGA Tour winner Rickie Fowler said. “People either love or hate that. He has fun on the golf course, that’s for sure.”
Fowler and Spieth were among the group of golfers McIlroy mentioned as carrying the game forward along with him. That McIlroy’s got so many potential rivals, former world No. 1 Martin Kaymer opined, is what should make the current world of golf interesting for fans.
“I think the game’s in great hands, not just with people like myself, but some of the young stars that are starting to come through and play well; and even though there’s a few guys that have been at the top for a number of years who are struggling a little bit,” McIlroy said. “I feel like the next generation coming through can definitely keep golf where it is.
“I don’t feel like there’s any pressure on me or from anyone else to carry the game forward.” I think it’s going to be just fine.”
Facts and figures
Where: Trump National Doral, 400 NW 87th Ave., Doral.
Course: The Blue Monster, 7,258 yards, Par 72.
Format: 72-hole stroke play with no cut.
The field: 74 players, including the top 50 in the world.
Purse: $9,250,000 ($1,570,000 to the winner).
FedEx points: 550 to the winner.
TV: Thursday-Friday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Golf Channel; Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. Golf Channel; 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. NBC. Sunday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Golf Channel; 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. NBC.
Defending champion: Patrick Reed
Parking: General parking is at JC Bermudez Park at 3000 NW 87th Ave., Doral. Preferred parking is at the same location, but a pass is required.
Tickets: Go to www.cadillacchampionship.com for information. Daily grounds passes start at $40 for Thursday, $50 for Friday, and $60 for Saturday or Sunday. Patrons 18 and under are admitted free with a ticketed adult.
Winners at Doral
2014 — Patrick Reed, 284
2013 — Tiger Woods, 269
2012 — Justin Rose, 272
2011 — Nick Watney, 272
2010 — Ernie Els, 270
2009 — Phil Mickelson, 269
2008 — Geoff Ogilvy, 271
2007 — Tiger Woods, 270
2006 — Tiger Woods, 261
*2005 — Tiger Woods, 270
2004 — Ernie Els, 270
2003 — Tiger Woods, 274
2002 — Tiger Woods, 263
2001 — Joe Durant, 270
2000 — Mike Weir, 277
*1999 — Tiger Woods, 278
1998 — Michael Bradley, 278
1997 — Steve Elkington, 275
1996 — Greg Norman, 269
1995 — Nick Faldo, 273
1994 — John Huston, 274
1993 — Greg Norman, 265
1992 — Raymond Floyd, 271
*1991 — Rocco Mediate, 276
*1990 — Greg Norman, 273
1989 — Bill Glasson, 275
1988 — Ben Crenshaw, 274
1987 — Lanny Wadkins, 277
*1986 — Andy Bean, 276
1985 — Mark McCumber, 284
1984 — Tom Kite, 272
1983 — Gary Koch, 271
1982 — Andy Bean, 278
1981 — Raymond Floyd, 273
*1980 — Raymond Floyd, 279
1979 — Mark McCumber, 279
1978 — Tom Weiskopf, 272
1977 — Andy Bean, 277
1976 — Hubert Green, 270
1975 — Jack Nicklaus, 276
1974 — Buddy Allin, 272
1973 — Lee Trevino, 276
1972 — Jack Nicklaus, 276
1971 — J.C. Snea, 275
1970 — Mike Hill, 279
1969 — Tom Shaw, 276
1968 — Gardner Dickinson, 275
1967 — Doug Sanders, 275
1966 — Phil Rodgers, 278
1965 — Doug Sanderson, 274
1964 — Billy Casper, 277
1963 — Dan Sikes, 283
1962 — Billy Casper, 283
*-Won in playoff