Slow down on crowning hot Rory McIlroy as golf's new master of the game

Pat Forde
Slow down on crowning hot Rory McIlroy as golf's new master of the game

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – You would think, given the fragile nature of the world's most famous golfer, that we would learn. We would tone down the hype.

But for some reason, golf has a Savior Complex. There has to be a player to put on a pedestal above the logo-festooned masses. There must be someone to hail as the latest greatest – not just a talented player on a hot streak, but a new master of the game.

Rory McIlroy hits a shot during a PGA Championship practice round Tuesday. (Getty)

So it is Rory McIlroy's turn. In the lead-up to the PGA Championship, he's being fitted for his halo and golden golf shoes as we speak.

With Tiger Woods physically absent here and metaphorically absent for quite some time as the game's dominant player, the void must be filled. And who better to do that than the 25-year-old Irishman who just lapped the British Open field and followed that up with a stirring rally to win Sunday in Akron?

Thus came this phrase in a question from a Brit to McIlroy on Tuesday at Valhalla Golf Club: " … A lot of us have been talking about the era of Rory …"

McIlroy wisely winced at the suggestion.

"I don't really know how to answer that," he said. "Yeah, of course, I've heard it and I've read it. Sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon and jump on certain things.

"I've had a great run of golf and I've played well over the past few months. Look, I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game. I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it's just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be. … So I'm not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I'm just really happy with where my game is at the minute and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible. … If you read everything that was being written, I'd turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I'd already won the tournament."

That's a prudent shrinking of the hype to something approaching manageable size. In that vein, let's slow our roll and call this the McIlroy McEra. Keep it bite-sized for as long as possible.

He's won three majors at the age of 25, something only Woods and Jack Nicklaus have done before. Not only that, but he's won three different majors: a U.S. Open in 2010, a PGA in 2012 and the British last month. He won the first two in absolute romps, by eight strokes apiece, and the Open Championship win at Hoylake was a low-stress affair even though the final margin was only two shots.

Since 1980, only four golfers have won three straight tour starts: Tom Watson, Woods (multiple times), David Duval and Vijay Singh. McIlroy can become the fifth, and not just because he's on a roll. Valhalla also seems to suit him perfectly.

One of the great allures of McIlroy's game is his ability to hit drives that make grown men weep. Towering, majestic and seemingly endless drives that rarely fail to find the fairway. McIlroy was so brilliant off the tee Sunday at Firestone that he moved CBS commentator David Feherty to proclaim him "the greatest driver of the ball I've ever seen."

Feherty has been on the planet for 55 years, most of that time spent either playing or covering professional golf. And he would seem to know a little about the centuries of golf that preceded him. So that's a rather extraordinary statement, but McIlroy's performance off the tee in that tournament was that good.

Rory McIlroy salutes the crowd following the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament at Firestone. (USA TODAY Sports)

According to, he averaged 334.8 yards per drive at Firestone, a whopping 35 yards farther than the field average and the best one-tournament average of the year. Eighty-two percent of his drives were 300 yards or longer. And even on a course that doesn't exactly have XXL fairway width, he routinely was in the short grass.

After that performance, you don't have to go far here at Valhalla to find others joining Feherty in going gushy over Rory's driving ability.

"He's such a great driver of the golf ball," Phil Mickelson said. "… I think as long as he keeps playing to his strength, he's going to be making birdies and winning tournaments. He's just a very good talent. … Now everything is clicking and firing and he's tough to beat."

Said fellow big stick Bubba Watson, who will play with McIlroy on Thursday and Friday: "I think his technique is so good that obviously he can move the ball out there."

McIlroy said he's gained three kilograms (about 6 ½ pounds) in the past eight weeks, enhancing his strength. There is plenty of coiled spring in his 5-foot-9 body, and that should mesh well with a Valhalla layout that will encourage grip-and-rip driving.

The course is long (7,458 yards at a par-71), but the primary cut of bluegrass rough is a manageable three inches and the fairways are wide enough to hit with an aggressive swing. This being a Jack Nicklaus-designed course, it will always be suited to Jack's trademark power fade, which is something McIlroy has added to his repertoire.

"I hit a number of tee shots last week left-to-right, and that's when I know I'm swinging it well," McIlroy said.

He's swinging it better than anyone in the world right now, which is why the hype is running unchecked heading into this PGA Championship. It's wildly premature to call this the Era of Rory, but it's very fair this week to say Rory's the story.