John Raoux, Associated Press
KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The next major is eight months away. The next showdown is nine days away.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are assured of being paired together next week at The Barclays for the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs. And while these playoff events are more about making money than making history, this could become meaningful down the road.
Woods has never faced a rival with this kind of potential.
He has never won at least three times in a year without being looked upon as the undisputed best player in golf.
For the first time in his quest to break Jack Nicklaus' record in the majors, the biggest challenge for Woods is no longer overcoming a failed marriage, four knee surgeries, a tender Achilles tendon or even the fact that he's simply getting older.
It's another player.
McIlroy and Woods have played in the same tournament 12 times this year. McIlroy has finished ahead of Woods seven times, including wins at the Honda Classic and the PGA Championship. They both tied for 40th at the Masters. McIlroy has seven top 5s in those events, along with three missed cuts.
This is not about where they were at a similar stage in their careers. Woods is incomparable in that regard. McIlroy has won twice in his first 16 majors as a pro. Woods won five majors in that span, including the career Grand Slam at age 24.
It's about where they are now.
So dominant was McIlroy at Kiawah Island, where he had rounds of 67-66 on the weekend to win the PGA Championship by eight shots, that it's easy to get caught up in all things Rory. He is only 23, younger by some four months than when Woods won his second major, and he is doing things only thought possible by Woods. A record score at the U.S. Open last summer at Congressional. A record margin of victory at the PGA Championship on Sunday at Kiawah Island.
McIlroy has won two majors by a combined 16 shots.
To put that in perspective, only five majors have been won by eight shots or more in the last 35 years — three by Woods, two by McIlroy.
But let's see how this plays out.
McIlroy could turn out to be like Johnny Miller, a comet on the golf horizon in the 1970s when he fired at flags and slaughtered the competition. Miller won two majors, with a 63 on the last day at Oakmont and a 66 in the final round at Royal Birkdale.
Perhaps McIlroy will be like Tom Watson, who was 10 years younger than Nicklaus.
Nicklaus already had the record for most majors when Watson won his first one, although Watson kept him from winning more. He beat Nicklaus twice in 1977, in the Masters and in the "Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry. He beat him again in 1981 at Augusta National and kept him from a record five U.S. Open titles in 1982 at Pebble Beach when Watson chipped in for birdie on the 17th hole.
McIlroy is 13 years younger than Woods. They have never gone head-to-head on Sunday in a major. Ultimately, that will be the measure. Along the way, however, McIlroy is stashing away large bits of confidence that few others could when Woods was at his peak.
There is no reason for McIlroy to be intimidated. His name on the leaderboard means just as much. He is a favorite in any color shirt.
Nick Faldo once explained why Woods had such a huge advantage in the majors. Faldo thought after the 1997 Masters that Augusta National would be the only place Woods could win a major because the golf course suited him and because it was the only major where the media was kept outside the ropes. Only later did he realize that Woods was the only one who could handle the commotion inside the ropes in the final round.
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