On the PGA Tour, the Transitions Championship is a tournament played in the Tampa area a few weeks before the Masters. Golf’s transition championship, however, was held this week at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, NC, with a distant shot also fired from Togo, Japan.
Rory McIlroy, the curly-haired prodigy straight out of Hollywood (actually spelled Holywood, his home town in Northern Ireland), shot a dazzling final-round 62 on a golf course many have hailed as worthy of a major championship. The day’s work, following a six-under 66 on Saturday, gave him a four-shot victory, his first in the United States. If he wants to celebrate it with champagne or whisky, he’ll have to wait a few days, until he turns twenty-one on Tuesday.
“If I were home, we’d be having a good one tonight,” he told fellow Ulsterman David Feherty after the win was official, thinking of the three-years-younger drinking age back across the pond.
McIlroy torched Quail Hollow after needing an eagle on his sixteenth hole on Friday just to make the 36-hole cut. He made nine birdies against three bogeys on Saturday, then topped that with eight birdies and an eagle on a mistake-free Sunday, closing the tournament with six consecutive threes.
The critical blow was a 206-yard laser of a five-iron to three feet for eagle on the par-five fifteenth. He followed that with a fairway bunker shot to five feet for birdie on sixteen, a fifty-five foot putt that lipped out on seventeen, and a forty-footer for birdie on eighteen for a ten-under round that broke the course record by two. It was a ball-striking master class: Seven of his nine birdie or eagle putts were from inside ten feet.
The youngster is part of a new generation expected to challenge the established stars of the U.S. Tour, possibly posing at last a true threat to the reign of Tiger Woods. This week, however, Tiger looked as though he could do that all by himself.
Quail Hollow was Tiger’s first regular Tour event after his self-imposed exile, and it could hardly have gone much worse. On Thursday, a tabloid report claimed that as part of his therapy Woods had listed 120 women with whom he’d had sex during his marriage – and that his wife was especially furious to learn about number 121, a young neighbor he’d deliberately left off the list. On Friday, en route to a 79, he was heckled and greeted with some thumbs-down gestures from fans; police removed one patron who called out, “No red shirt for you on Sunday,” as Tiger’s woeful round wound down with the cut-line out of reach.
Worst of all, it was one of the first times anyone has seen him give up on a golf course. As the round slipped away and it was clear things would not turn around, he stopped grinding and rushed through his shots, posting consecutive double-bogeys thanks to a flop shot through the green and into the water on 14 and then a hasty four-putt on 15. Boxing trainer Teddy Atlas warns that the trouble with ever quitting in a fight is that once you’ve done it, you always have it as an option in your mind when things get tough. It was just one tournament, but it was a Tiger Woods we have never seen before.
While the next phenom was announcing his presence with authority on the PGA Tour, an even younger pro was making a statement of his own six thousand miles away. Ryo Ishikawa – two years, four months, and fourteen days younger than McIlroy – shot a twelve-under-par 58 on the 6,545-yard Nagoya Golf Club to win The Crowns event on the Japan Tour. He started the day six strokes behind the leader Shigeki Maruyama, and wound up winning the tournament by five. The 18-year-old needed just twenty putts to card twelve birdies and six pars, and barely missed a fifteen-footer on the final hole for 57. It was his eighth win on his home tour.
Tiger would do well to heed the words of Satchel Paige, another athlete known for his womanizing ways: Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you.