In winning last weekend's U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy proved what golf enthusiasts, club pros and the occasionally overweight gentleman in a pair of chinos and a Tommy Bahama fedora have been pledging for decades... golf, for lack of a better word, is cool.
(Now, listen to the beginning of the song, "She's Long Gone" by The Black Keys and re-read that intro... nice, right?)
McIlroy is an undoubted light at the end of the Tiger tunnel, a tunnel that featured a stunning car crash and severe highway traffic. Tiger's exodus -- not from the game, but from that lofty throne in the clouds where Zeus and Hera live -- left the game he helped build in an almost heart-stopping turmoil.
You could have tried the defibrillators, but it looked like golf was dead. All that work Tiger had done to make kids love the sports -- to get them to wear fitted Nike caps and work on their bunker game -- was coming unraveled, caused on one part by Tiger's infidelity and on the other by his suddenly sloppy golf game.
All of a sudden, kids were buying cut-off t-shirts and headbands instead and screaming, "I'm Rafa! I'm Rafa! I'm Rafa!"
Tiger had existed in his own sphere for so long. He certainly wasn't unconditionally loved by his competitors, but they normally respected him enough to keep their thoughts to themselves. First came Jesper Parnevik. Then came Ernie Els. Before you knew it, nobody seemed to hope for Tiger's return. Nobody seemed to care. The Tiger was tamed. He was a little kitty, licking his paws on the courses he once ruled, while Jim Nantz tried harder and harder to make him seem like the man he once was -- or, at least, the man we hoped he was.
Unlike everybody else, I have no interest in comparing Rory's play and youth to Tiger's play and (former) youth. I have no interest in asking or debating whether Rory will one day top Tiger's marks, or whether he'll win 19 majors and surpass the count of Jack Nicklaus -- the greatest golfer of all-time.
(I have a point on that one, too, because people will continue to say that Tiger is the best ever. They'll say that, in his prime, nobody has ever been better than Tiger. Listen, I don't know about that, because Bobby Jones won four majors in one year, Tiger won four in a row, and countless other golfers have accomplished feats that are comparable when looked at in the record books. But, I do know this: your career is not measured in one year, or five years, or 10 years... it's measured from start to finish. Nicklaus won 18 majors -- the last one coming when he was 46 years old -- and, until Tiger wins 19, he hasn't beaten Jack. He's not better than Jack.)
It's unfair to automatically ask Rory -- who's just won his first major -- to surpass Jack's mark, or to surpass Tiger's... Hey, it may be unfair to ask him to surpass Watson, Ballesteros, or Hogan, too. Sergio Garcia was supposed to be Tiger's ultimate rival from 1999 on. At least, that's what NBC wanted.
Twelve years later, and El Nino still hasn't won that first major.
I know that Rory's great. I know he's talented, and he's charismatic and -- here's that word again -- "cool."
But, McIlroy is not here to replace Tiger's records (or, future records). He's not here to take his place on the tee. He's not here to be Tiger.
He's here to show that golf is alive and well, and that it isn't just surviving without Tiger winning every tournament -- it's better.
Joining McIlroy on the list of golf's new young elite is the orange-clad Rickie Fowler, the Burberry'd Aussie Adam Scott, and the two-time 2011 major runner-up Jason Day.
The list of fresh faces and good stories doesn't stop. Luke Donald is now the world number one, Lee Westwood is still searching for his first major, Martin Kaymar has emerged, McIlroy's fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell sits at number eight in the world (and, really, how balling is it that two Northern Irishman have won the U.S. Open in consecutive years?), and Masters champ Charl Schwartzel rounds out the top 10.
We all thought Tiger was that guy, like we all thought A-Rod was that guy. Yes, it was a fake. It was a hoax. That doesn't mean we should blast Tiger -- even though I'm sure it sounds like I have in this "article" -- but it means we should embrace the rest.
Golf has never been in a better place. It's never had better style. It's never had this kind of wild west, winner-take-all mentality. Every tournament will be a battle. Every time McIlroy picks up a club, you'll wonder whether he'll make history. And, if he does dominate, you won't be mad about it, like you were with Tiger.
Remember when someone else would win a major, and the cameras would follow Tiger around like a lost puppy dog? Tiger would never acknowledge the puppy dog, and that made the cameras love him more. Whenever somebody else was winning -- be it by one stroke or seven -- the cameras were always on Tiger. And, then you'd say while reading the paper the next morning, "Oh, Rich Beem won." Whenever Tiger would miss a shot, you'd hear him (in his voice of self pity) go, "Ohhhh, Tigerrrrrr..."
At first, it was depressing without Tiger. We didn't have that bastion to cling to. We didn't know who to watch. Then, we realized this McIlroy guy was pretty cool, and he has a sweet accent. We realized that Fowler guy was rocking Puma on the golf course. We realized that Luke Donald's pants are almost as original as Jesper Parnevik's.
Golf is back, and golf is cool.
This article was originally posted on White Cover Magazine.