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World’s No. 1 McIlroy eclipses Tiger in one way: Leadership

For as much as is falling his way lately, Rory McIlroy couldn't coax this putt into the hole during last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
For as much as is falling his way lately, Rory McIlroy couldn't coax this putt into the hole during last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack

Rory McIlroy just celebrated his 100th (non-consecutive) week atop the world golf ranking. Just 583 more weeks at the top, and he’ll catch Tiger Woods’ record.

“I can’t fathom that,” he said.

No one can.

As a 30-year-old with still many years left to make his mark, McIlroy will never match Woods’ golfing dominance. Yet, he already is far better at one important aspect of being famous than Woods ever was in his prime: Lending a strong voice of leadership to his sport.

There was McIlroy in 2017, decrying that it took the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield two votes to allow women membership. “It’s obscene. It’s ridiculous,” he said, in part.

And there he was again this year when the idea of a competing Premier Golf League – one with smaller, elite fields and bigger money, some of it guaranteed – was floated for a possible 2022 launch. Possibly great for the few. Bad for the many. Phil Mickelson has said he was intrigued by the idea. Woods was interested but non-committal. Meanwhile, the No. 1-ranked player in the world came out strongly against it, pointing out that it would take away players’ precious freedom to set their own tournament schedules. He also was uneasy about the backers of the venture (it was reported to have strong Saudi financial ties).

The executive branch of the PGA Tour was quite appreciative. “I thought that was a moment of leadership, and that was a special time, special day,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said Tuesday.

You can’t get a strong opinion out of Woods with a crowbar. He doesn’t do commentary, doesn’t care to say anything that might ruffle the cashmere landscape of professional golf. He’s had enough personal chaos and needs to look nowhere else for it.

As for McIlroy and leadership: “At this point I think I have somewhat of a responsibility. Not just for myself but for the other players.

“I’ve been around the top of the game for a long time now – over a decade – and I think being at the age I am and being at the stage of life I am, I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin and in my own beliefs and values and convictions.”

This should be McIlroy’s time to lead with his play, as well.

Inside a month now to the Masters, and it is time for somebody that you could pick out from a crowd of Casual Friday models to do something big.

The Florida swing has begun with fellows named Im and Hatton celebrating at the end. Which is a nice diversion if you like champions who can go to any Topgolf and get noticed only because they don’t swing like axe murderers. Golf tends to revolve in a very tight orbit around a very few bodies. There’s the sun – Woods. And then there’s a handful of other celestial players, none named Im or Hatton; not yet, anyway.

McIlroy is the next in line, and he will be carrying a good deal of the name-recognition load at this week’s Players Championship, where he will try to become the first to defend a title at this almost-major.

He sounds ready.

“I like big putts, and I cannot lie,” McIlroy said, sort of channeling some Sir Mix-A-Lot lyrics.

He doesn’t just do serious, you know. That’s another thing to like about him.

As when he was asked about his slow, ever-evolving appreciation for tricky, crosstie-infested Pete Dye courses like TPC Sawgrass.

“It’s like beer when you’re younger,” he said. “You sort of don’t like it, but then you think it’s cool to drink it, and then you sort of acquire a taste for it.”

And speaking of beer, McIlroy tells this story on himself – the kind of tale that Woods would never share. It stems from his first appearance at the Players in 2009, when he was just turning 20.

“My first time I played here, the weekend before I was in Vegas for a fight,” he said. “I probably didn’t prepare the best way possible and missed the cut and ended up getting kicked out of bars in Jacksonville Beach for having a fake ID.

“So, I’ve come a long way.”

As questions mount concerning Woods’ fitness to defend his title in Augusta, McIlroy may find himself a figure of ever-increasing significance there, too. It is, as he is constantly reminded, the only major he hasn’t won. It is one that has seen him in the oddest predicaments – like up against a cabin on No. 10 in 2011. It is the one in which he has never finished higher than fourth.

While Woods stays home with a balky back, McIlroy arrives at the Players in the midst of a run that would be incredible for most of his peers. Anyone else finishes top 5 in his past seven events worldwide, he’s feeling pretty flush. McIlroy, though, can talk about the “bad top 5” of last week, when he shot 76 in the final round at Bay Hill.

Woods isn’t around right now, and all his future plans are written in erasable ink. And thus is McIlroy the best storyline going in his absence. If Woods can’t loosen up by April, McIlroy will play the lead among the azaleas.

And leadership becomes him.

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