Folks, this is how it happens. Like Tom Stearns Eliot said, “Not with a bang but a whimper.”
As if 1997 was really a whole 16 years ago, Tiger Woods is no longer Tiger Woods. This is not a statement of opinion, but rather one of mathematics and fact. He has more majors now than he did then, which was one. He is 16 years older, obviously. He’s no longer a symbol of golf’s youth movement. He is still one of its biggest ambassadors – maybe still the biggest – but he’s far from the meal ticket.
Even as No. 2, he’s still not No. 1. You can’t deny this. In marketing and in play, Tiger is no longer tops. He’s an opening act or, if you’d prefer it, the guitarist who is still capable of stealing some spotlight away from the lead singer.
It is, of course, a little Northern Irish man named Rory McIlroy. Twenty-three, and full of glee.
On Nov. 3, McIlroy usurped Tiger as Nike’s go-to guy, signing a contract that could promise him $250 million and put little black check marks all over England, as if they weren’t there already. Northern Ireland, welcome to the circus, as if you weren’t there already.
It probably shouldn’t be shocking to see Tiger knocked down the status of official opposition — although his friendship, cordiality, and commercial symbiosis with Rory shows he has come to peace with it. Of course, that is shocking, isn’t? The Tiger we all knew — or, thought we knew — was never cool with letting his guard down, or even losing a hole. He was never cool with missing a cut or missing a pay day. He was never friends with the ones who beat him. Friend-ly, maybe. But, not friends.
Now? Tiger doesn’t think Rory McIlroy is his biggest rival. Back in the day, he thought Rory Sabbatini was his biggest rival.
“Obviously, among them are Phil, Vijay, and Ernie… Rory has two Major championships so far but he’s so young, he’s only 23 years old,” Tiger said from golf’s new mecca, Asia. “Let him grow and develop over the next decade. He’s got so much talent and he’s just learning how to play the game. He’s only going to get better with age.”
Right. He’s just learning how to play the game, but he already has two majors.
Tiger’s right. Rory isn’t his biggest rival. But, Tiger is Rory’s.
Suddenly, McIlroy has his foot on everyone’s throat. Suddenly, McIlroy is Kobe Bryant. Or, LeBron. Michael Jordan.
Somehow, we have to stop associating Tiger with Nike, because Nike has gradually stopped associating itself with Tiger, at least unconditionally.
Who knows whether Rory will ever beat the 18 majors mark that Tiger is still chasing, or whether he’ll catch Tiger.
All anyone knows beyond a reasonable doubt is that Nike has placed its crown on a new royal’s head, and his hair is curly.
Long live the King.