Rising star McIlroy adds spice to season

March 5, 2012 12:15 am

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For more months than we care to think about, the only real question in golf has been this: What's wrong with Tiger Woods?

Maybe now we should be asking what's going so well with golf.

Plenty, if you judge from a Sunday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where a new star helped cement his claim to greatness even as he heard roars coming down the stretch that could only mean Woods was on the move.

No. 1 in the world was on the line for Rory McIlroy, but that wasn't even the biggest subplot of the day. That was owned by a player in bright red whose game finally matched the brilliance of his shirt.

Woods' 62 may not have put a scare into McIlroy, but it did put everyone on notice that he can still play golf. Doing it on Sunday after it has been so long since he has won a real tournament screamed out Woods was, indeed, back.

The only question is how much it still matters. To the crowd count, yes, and maybe even to the count always in Woods' head -- the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.

But there's a new attraction in golf, a curly haired Northern Irelander who is 22 and just as much fun to watch as Woods in his prime and a lot more fun to be around. McIlroy's boyish charm and obvious joy for the game are in stark contrast to Woods, and he seems so approachable that one fan on the 17th tee Saturday asked him what kind of shampoo he uses.

But the way he stared down Woods in the final round may be what separates him from all the pretenders that came before.

McIlroy never backed off, even when Woods made eagle on the final hole to pull within one in the Honda Classic. He heard the roars from the 18th green, then stepped up and calmly knocked in a birdie putt on No. 13 on his way to a win that made him the youngest No. 1 player in the world since -- you guessed it -- Woods early in his career.

McIlroy may not be the next Woods, but that's an unfair comparison. Woods in his prime was so dominant the odds are there will never be anyone like him again. And he showed Sunday that he's not done yet, something that should sell tickets and spark TV ratings the rest of the year.

Still, there's something about McIlroy that's appealing to watch, something about him that oozes star power. We have known it since his runaway win at the most recent U.S. Open at Congressional, and he confirmed it on a breezy day made even better by the pressure from the still big footsteps of Woods. While Woods was magnificent, McIlroy was steady and that was all he needed to become the first No. 1 since Woods that casual golf fans actually care about.

Tim Dahlberg is a national columnist for The Associated Press.
First Published 2012-03-04 23:58:30

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