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Don't rush to anoint McIlroy

After last weekend, I'd say Rory McIlroy is the biggest thing to hit golf since Tiger Woods' car hit the tree.

McIlroy's performance in last weekend's U.S. Open was one of the greatest in the history of the sport. At barely 22, the affable Northern Irishman became the youngest player since Bobby Jones to win the event. McIlroy set 12 U.S. Open scoring records, including his four-round totals of 268 and 16-under par.

The fans at Congressional embraced McIlroy like some young god, chanting his name as he dominated the Open from start to finish. McIlroy, looking like an Irish Huck Finn with his freckles and unruly hair, was as modest and unaffected in his epic victory as he had been during his collapse at the Masters two months before.

It was great for golf, still reeling from Woods' fall from grace and lingering leg injuries and desperate for a superstar to seize the spotlight in his absence. McIlroy is young, just nine months older than Woods was when he won his first major in 1997. He is also a remarkably talented player who should be a force for years to come.

But let's not get carried away here. The kid has won ONE major. OK, his was a performance that will be discussed for as long as humans stick tees in the hard ground. It's premature, and more than a little unfair, to start talking about McIlroy as the natural heir to Woods in the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus.

Let's show a little respect for the game and the men who have come before. McIlroy made it seem easy, but it is extremely hard to win a golf major. A lot of very good golfers haven't won a single major. Phil Mickelson didn't win one until he was 33. Ben Hogan was also 33 when he got his first major.

McIlroy understands. That's why he was taken aback Saturday when Padraig Harrington predicted Rory would break Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories. He put his head down on the interview table and said, "Paddy, Paddy, Paddy, I'm trying to win my first."

We're always looking to identify the next great thing in our culture. I've learned to be wary. How many "next Michael Jordans" have there been? How many young golf and tennis phenoms have failed to measure up to their hype? How many quarterbacks?

Remember when Sergio Garcia made a run at Woods in a PGA Championship at 19? He's had a nice career, but he's still looking for his first major victory. Wasn't Anthony Kim being hailed as the next big thing just two years ago? David Duval soared to the top of the world, then lost his passion and his game.

McIlroy is an extraordinary talent, to be sure. You can't fake what he's done lately. He tied for third at last year's British Open and PGA Championship. He has led at some point in three straight majors. That's the sort of consistency that got Nicklaus to 18 major triumphs, and Woods to 14. Let's see McIlroy keep it up. It's one thing to learn from calamity and come back to win a major. It's another to do it over and over again, to sustain greatness over more than a decade, to stay motivated and not succumb to the inevitable distractions that come with growing up as a famous professional athlete.

The signs are promising. McIlroy has a golf game to die for. He hits it long and straight off the tee. His irons are as precise as a mercury clock. His short game is much improved. He proved his competitive will and focus at Congressional.

Graeme McDowell, his countryman and fellow major winner, called McIlroy "the best player I've ever seen." That was kind of him. But has McDowell never seen Woods play? The expectations will be high enough without that sort of exaggerated praise.

Only time will tell if McIlroy can keep it up. Woods appeared single-minded and focused only on golf. People wondered if marriage would spoil him. Then we found out he had a darker side. Life can intrude. Then, of course, there's golf, which can humble even the best player and leave him wondering where it went awry.

Woods won 24 tournaments, including five majors, before he turned 25. McIlroy has three total wins. Woods reinvented his swing twice and changed coaches and caddies along the way. He was constantly resetting his own standard of greatness, trying to remain one step ahead of this capricious game we call golf.

McIlroy grew up idolizing Woods. That tells you how young he is. He tried to mimic Woods' famed intensity with the lead in the Open. No one has ever been tougher than Woods with the lead on Sunday of a major. McIlroy understands the standard that Woods has set, and that's why he's uncomfortable with the comparisons.

I understand the need for a new golf superstar. Woods has driven interest and ratings for more than a decade. A generation of hot young challengers came along. No one measured up. The last 11 majors have been won by 11 different players. McIlroy will be a disappointment if he fails to win more than one of the next 11.

Woods texted his congratulations after McIlroy shattered his U.S. Open records. He reminded the youngster to "enjoy the win." Woods would know how easy it is to do that, to reach the point where victory is an expectation and some of the joy is lost.

We're a long way from taking McIlroy for granted. Let him win a couple more majors before we start measuring him against Nicklaus and Woods. I can imagine Woods had similar thoughts as he sat home in Florida, resting his injured left leg and wishing he could be giving McIlroy a run for his money.

McIlroy is great for golf. But Woods is still the better story. There would be no better drama than seeing Woods healthy again, going head-to-head against the upstart Irishman on the final nine of a major.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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