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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tiger VS Rory Debate

I've listened -- with some amusement, I might add -- to the unavoidable debate about who's better, Tiger or Rory. And I suspect those two may be amused as well, given some of the crazy things that have been said. Rory certainly seems so; if you saw his post-tournament press conference when he was told Padraig Harrington had announced that Rory would be the one to break Jack's 18-major record (and did so after the third round, before Rory even got his first one!), you know what I mean. The embarrassed laugh, the shake of his head, the sigh, the "Oh Paddy, Paddy, Paddy" remark that drew laughs from the press corps...

I thought I'd take a post and share my own thoughts about this budding "clash of titans," as unimportant as my opinion may be. Given the extreme views I've heard expressed by people who should know better, maybe I can bring a bit of sanity to this war of hyperbole.

Basically, here are the two sides:
  • Rory has supplanted Tiger. Not said in as many words, of course, but how else can you interpret the comments? Graeme McDowell said he'd never seen play at the level of what Rory did at Congressional, and Padraig Harrington insinuated (in the statement mentioned earlier) that Tiger with 14 majors had less chance of breaking Jack's record than Rory with (at that time) 0 majors.
  • Rory isn't even in Tiger's league. Again, not said in as many words but clearly intended. Typical here was Brandel Chamblee questioning whether Rory could catch even Tiger's major total because he wasn't "obsessed" like Tiger and was too nice of a kid to have that killer instinct, and Tim Rosaforte saying he thought (for the same reasons) that Rory might win a lot of tournaments but never win a large number of majors.
In case you hadn't guessed, I think both sides are ignoring simple facts. The closest thing I heard to a sane reaction came from, of all people, David Feherty. David said that had the Tiger of 2000 faced off against the Rory of Congressional, Tiger might have lost. Given how fond and proud David is of his fellow Northern Irishman, and given that he only said Tiger "might" have lost, I'd call that a fair assessment. It would certainly have been a good match!

Let's take a harder look at these comments and see what the truth might be.

Graeme's comment is almost understandable. It's colored by the closeness of his relationship with Rory, and Rory has said that Graeme is probably his closest friend on Tour. Given how close they live to each other, what they've accomplished as members of a small country that's never been considered a golf powerhouse, and also that Graeme was with Rory during the debacle at the Masters, can you fault his enthusiasm?

The fact is that Tiger never had to come back from a devastating collapse the way Rory has -- at least, not until he hit that fire hydrant. Given that Tiger -- who's always been viewed as able to handle anything -- hasn't handled his fall from grace particularly well, you could make a reasonable argument that Rory's good play so soon after the Masters demonstrates qualities that we haven't seen yet from Tiger. So while Tiger has probably played better than Rory, it's hard to say Rory's performance under the circumstances wasn't more impressive.

From a strictly technical view, however, there's no contest. Tiger's won under tougher circumstances than Rory.

As for Paddy's remark... well, I like Paddy but he'd had a few too many before he said that. Perhaps Paddy believes that this injury will end Tiger's career, but until we know that for sure, Tiger's still on pace to beat Jack's record. He may not have won a major for 3 years, but Tiger's only 35; Jack didn't win his 15th major until he was 38. In fact, Jack only won 4 majors after he turned 35. Tiger's far from running out of time.

Again, there's a bit of over-enthusiasm here. ;-) But the other side fares no better.

I would argue that Brandel's "obsession" argument is flawed, simply because that obsession may yet end Tiger's career. It was obsession that caused him to build a swing that has nearly destroyed his left knee. I think you could argue that most of Tiger's personal problems and current swing problems came from that obsessive nature. Obsessions are all-consuming, folks. They affect everything you do. Rory's less-obsessive nature may actually lengthen his career, and with more time comes more opportunities.

Does a lack of obsession -- and a threatening persona -- mean you don't have the "killer instinct" necessary to win majors? Hardly. Let's take a quick look at Rory's last four:
  • 2010 Open Championship: Rory fires a 63 the first day, giving him the first round lead. He's not used to it and the weather is bad the 2nd day, and he shoots 80. He comes back to shoot 69-68 and finish in 3rd, 8 off the lead. If he had shot par in that 2nd round, he'd have at least made a playoff.
  • 2010 PGA Championship: Rory shoots 71-68-67-72 and finishes T3. He misses a putt to make the playoff.
  • 2011 Masters: You know the story. It's Rory's first time leading a major wire-to-wire... or at least for 63 holes. He cracks under the pressure and shoots 80 in the last round. You can see the pressure build in the scores: 65-69-70-80. Had he shot just 70 in that last round, he'd have been in a playoff.
  • 2011 U.S. Open: Rory follows a plan he made after cracking in the Masters and wins running away, setting or tying 12 different records. He shoots 65-66-68-69.
Here's an inexperienced kid who "doesn't have that killer instinct" and is in contention at majors for the first time... and he's only two bad rounds and one missed putt from a slam. The facts say he's got plenty of killer instinct; all he needs is some experience winning, which he started acquiring this past week.

Based on what I see here, although I think Tiger can still break Jack's record, I'd agree with Paddy that Rory could potentially do it also.

As for Rosaforte's comment... I really respect Rosie, but he's ignoring the facts here. After 100 starts for each player, Tiger had around 27 wins (3 majors) while Rory has 3 wins (1 major). As I just pointed out, had he been more experienced, Rory might have 4 majors now. And when asked in his Sunday presser why he played so well in majors, he simply said he didn't know and that he supposed he just got up for them better.

The facts say that Rory gets into contention in majors far more often than in regular tournaments, and he clearly wants major wins more. So Rosie's wrong. I suspect Rory will win lots of majors but fewer tournaments overall.

And if you think about it, this makes a lot more sense. Rory isn't obsessive like Tiger. While you need an element of obsession to rack up a huge win total, you don't need it to dominate in majors. Majors take up a mere 4 weeks of the year. Rory has the kind of temperament to play well in regular tournaments, to keep his game in shape without injuring himself and keep his mind in balance to avoid the pitfalls of obsession. I heard somebody mention how fresh Rory looked after winning, as opposed to the weariness that most major winners show. Maybe some of it was adrenaline, but I suspect it's a byproduct of that "lack of obsession" that most think will hurt him.

In other words, Rory simply doesn't waste as much energy in a major as an obsessed player. His more balanced approach allows him to accept his limitations and simply play the best he can. He's already talking about how important it is to keep going lower, no matter what your opponents do, and it's only a matter of time before he learns how to do it. And once he does, he could become more intimidating than Tiger, simply because he appears to win so easily. It's incredibly demoralizing to work your butt off trying to score, only to have someone cruise by you with a friendly smile on his face.

If that Rory ever faces off against the Tiger of 2000, it'll be a pay-per-view event!

So I'm like everybody else. I want to see these two great players face off on a regular basis. But I suspect everybody's in for a few surprises. When it's all said and done, I suspect Tiger will have more total tournament wins than Sam Snead, and Rory will lag somewhere behind. I also suspect Tiger will beat Jack's major total...

And then Rory will beat Tiger's total.

That's just my opinion, of course. But I have a feeling it's going to be fun to watch, no matter what happens.

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