Hate To Be Rude: Golf is ushering in its future

Rory McIlroy holds up the trophy on Sunday at the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

Thirty years ago, Arnold Palmer told me that he had been on top of the golf world for a few years before people realized Ben Hogan was no longer No. 1.

There are a couple of morals to that story.

One, golf fans tend to cling to their heroes longer than the followers of other sports. The likes of Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are examples. Palmer hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in 39 years and Nicklaus in 26, yet they remain factors on Madison Avenue and are never far from the public eye.

Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy, not so much.

Two, golf trends sometimes gain traction without the Great Unwashed realizing just how far along they are. Palmer-Hogan is perhaps Exhibit A. This sort of thing was probably more prevalent before the advent of the Official World Golf Ranking, whose numbers inform us who is hot and who is not.

All this struck me the other day when I believe I spotted an interesting piece of symbolism at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa. In the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, newly minted World No. 1 Rory McIlroy pitched in for eagle-3 on Doral Blue’s 12th hole, moving to one stroke off the lead.

Big Mac’s hole-out came a couple of minutes after Tiger Woods drove out of Doral in a black Mercedes sedan.

Woods, as you may have heard, had withdrawn after the 11th hole because of a sore left Achilles tendon.

You could interpret that as the second such message in as many Sundays. The previous week at the Honda Classic, Woods closed with a 62, his best final round ever, but couldn’t catch McIlroy. The victory moved the 22-year-old Ulsterman into the No. 1 ranking spot, a position Woods had held for years.

Moments like those give me the sense that we have left the Woods Era and are full steam ahead in the McIlroy reign. The future might prove otherwise, but I believe we’re onto something.

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Woods has finished better than fourth in a major just once since summer 2008. McIlroy, despite being so young, has done so four times since summer 2009.

Woods has been battling leg injuries now for four years, dating to the ’08 Masters, after which he underwent one of the four operations he has had on his left knee. McIlroy, meanwhile, was steadily climbing toward No. 1 during that time, healthy and happy and pleasant.

Besides the events of the past two Sundays, we can look at last year’s U.S. Open as something of a baton-passing moment. While Woods was recovering from a knee sprain and Achilles tendon strain, McIlroy was doing a Woods-like number on the field at Congressional.

Winning by eight wasn’t just an emphatic statement from someone who had had a Category 5 explosion the final day of the 2011 Masters. It was a heads up that we now have another rare separation player and a converging of eras.

We’ve seen symbolism before in this game, though not quite the same as this.

Nicklaus and Woods playing nearby at the 2000 U.S. Open, where Woods won by a mind-boggling 15 shots. One was starting while the other was finishing.

Nicklaus and Woods passing each other and sharing a moment by the interview room at the 2005 British Open at St. Andrews. It was Nicklaus’ last start in a major championship and Woods 10th major victory.

Phil Mickelson watching Arnold Palmer sign autograph after autograph at Palmer’s last U.S. Open, in 1994 at Oakmont, and coming away thinking, “I want to be that guy.” Of course, Mickelson in effect would, with his go-for-broke style and his dishing of countless signatures.

As for Woods, he got good news the other day. A doctor diagnosed his injury as a mild Achilles strain and said he could start hitting balls by week’s end, said Woods, still hopeful to play next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

But Woods came out of last year’s Masters with a mild Achilles strain and knee sprain. He said then that doctors told him to rest for 2-3 weeks. As it happened, though, he played only nine holes during the next four months.

Point is, his walk-off at Doral again raised questions about how much winning golf that left leg will allow him to play. At 36 and saddled with leg injuries for four calendars, he doesn’t appear ready for a marathon.

If you watched closely, Woods gave evidence that he’s not even close to being his old self – even before withdrawing. He bogeyed three of the last six par 5s at Doral, mixing in two pars and only one birdie.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like Woods used to go a whole season without making three bogeys on par 5s. He built his empire by dominating those holes.

His trouble on the long holes would seem to indicate he’s stuck in his famous "process." His latest leg flareup would seem to suggest he might not be fit for the long haul.

Unlike, say, McIlroy.

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