A friend of mine is an annoyingly good golfer. He has a handicap of 1, used to play off scratch and hits the ball further than I could ever dream. I could never understand why he didn’t make it as a professional – he’s even called Richard Barnes for fuck’s sake.
But I got some sort of idea of how good you have to be to make the grade five years ago he told me about a round of golf he had just played at Portrush. The Northern Irish golf course is widely regarded as one the 12th hardest golf course in the world. My mate Rich had gone around in 84, which sounds rubbish until he told me that Tiger Woods had warmed up for the Open there with an 81. But he also said that the day before he played a 16-year-old had just broken the course record with a 61. That was the first time I’d heard of Rory McIlroy.
Since then McIlroy has turned professional, won on the European tour and yesterday clinched his first PGA title at Quail Hollow – another incredibly hard track – with another course record. Phil Mickelson reckoned that a 68 on the final day would be enough to win the tournament, but although Leftie hit his target he wound up four shots worse off than Rory Mac, who segued his 66 third round score with a final round flourish of 62.
McIlroy’s 10-under-par round, sealed with a 45-foot putt on the 18th hole, came two days shy of his 21st birthday, making him the youngest winner on the US Tour since Tiger Woods. Tellingly, Woods missed the cut on his first return since the Masters. So are we seeing a seismic shift in the golfing landscape? With the in-form Phil Mickelson now closing in on the No1 spot, Woods’ game all at sea, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Anthony Kim all knocking on the door and a young Northern Irishman emerging from the shadows, has Woods, like every dog, had his day?
Nobody really knows what’s going on behind the scenes in the Tiger household. Maybe he’s been spending too much time doing the dishes, polishing the silver and making breafast in bed to devote the requisite hard yards into his game. Perhaps his time-out gave the others the time they needed to catch up with him – or maybe he just needs more tournament time to rediscover his mojo.
Either way, betting on golf just got more exciting. The ‘Betting Without Tiger Woods’ market may soon become a thing of the past, outright odds as low as 2/1 about Tiger winning any tournament could well also become the stuff of legend. And maybe, in a couple of years, there will be a whole new ‘Betting Without Rory McIlroy’ market.
Whatever happens, make no mistake; Mclroy is the real deal. He hits the ball a country mile (328 yards on final round at Quail Hollow), has the fearlessness of youth and an ice cool temperament under pressure. And now that he’s popped his PGA cherry it’s well worth backing him to win the US Open at Pebble Beach next month. Quick, take the 25/1 while it lasts.