Rory McIlroy Is A Victim Of The Tiger Woods Expectations Effect

The world’s #2-ranked golfer is struggling at the British Open and has missed four of his last six cuts. But he’s still doing pretty great.

CATHAL MCNAUGHTON / Reuters

Rory McIlroy followed up an impressive opening-day 67 with not-so-impressive rounds of 75 and 73 at the British Open. In the process, he just made the cut — an improvement over his two-day 2012 U.S. Open — but he’s well out of the running to top the leaderboard.

That U.S. Open debacle had particular significance because it came a year after McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots and set a new tournament record for lowest aggregate score. And that victory followed three third-place performances in majors over the previous two years. All of a sudden, it seemed this 22-year-old kid had ascended to the top of the golfing world, a prodigy in the vein of Tiger Woods &mdash. Except now, it seems like he’s muddling along in the middle like some common PGA riff-raff.

Herein lies the problem of how we see Rory McIlroy. When you’re already tying for third in the PGA Championship at the incredibly young age of 20, expectations get raised. When you win a major at 22, like he did with that U.S. Open, Tiger Woods comparisons start happening. Indeed, Tiger won his first major, the Masters, at age 21. But by the end of his 23rd year, he still hadn’t won his second — the same situation McIlroy’s in. So by that standard McIlroy is not doing badly at all.

The deceptive thing about Tiger, and a large part about what makes him arguably the greatest golfer of all time, is that Tiger Woods never, ever missed cuts. As in, from 1998 to 2005, his score was not once high enough to send him home before the weekend. That’s insane, and the consistency with which Tiger was in the hunt during his prime was surreal — and gave the casual golf fan a totally skewed sense of how often even the most elite players have mediocre tournaments. For example: during the Tiger era, arguably the second-best player around was Phil Mickelson. From 2004-2006, Mickelson won three of his majors, but he also missed four cuts. And when he was 23, he missed ten cuts.

Despite having missed four cuts in his last six tournaments, McIlroy is still the #2-ranked golfer in the world. At 23, he’s got significantly more room for improvement than the 34-year-old Luke Donald and 39-year-old Lee Westwood, the two guys he keeps trading the world #1 spot with. And no one besides Tiger has won a major at a younger age since World War II. We’re years away from being able to qualify Rory McIlroy as a disappointment, even on the scale of expecting him to be the next Tiger, since the early 20s of both players match up remarkably well. During their 20- to 23-year-old seasons, Tiger finished in the top 20 in nine majors, winning one; McIlroy had seven top-20s, also winning one.

That doesn’t mean the weight’s off McIlroy; in fact, every day he ages only amplifies the pressure. Just don’t be fooled by a lackluster 2012 into thinking that Rory isn’t worth your attention. And Tiger may be more than a decade older, but with his return to form, we could be on the verge of a spectacular one-on-one rivalry.

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