Hate to be Rude: Consistency at the top

Rory McIlroy reacts to winning the the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Rory McIlroy reacts to winning the 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, the same day as his video show of the same name.

DORAL, Fla .– Curtis Strange was on the telephone the other day and his voice went up an octave or three when he brought up the state of competition on the game’s upper rung. A player who rode a hard-edged approach to the World Golf Hall of Fame, Strange isn’t prone to gush, but you could detect pronounced enthusiasm.

“I can’t wait for the Masters,” he said. “The way things are shaping up, it could be very special.”

He was spot on. These are heady days for the golf follower. Every now and then, the stars align on high and the world of dimpled spheres becomes more compelling than usual.

We’re there now, most if not all cylinders being hit. Golf is captivating us and, with the Masters a month away, teasing us.

You couldn’t have had much of a better start to a season. It is something the fiction writers and dreamers might have conjured up.

Phil Mickelson wins for the first time in almost a year, with Tiger Woods at his side and Pebble Beach as a backdrop, and finishes second the next week.

Rory McIlroy, all of 22, becomes the second-youngest world No. 1 by holding off Woods at the Honda Classic on Sunday, a week after finishing second at the WGC Accenture Match Play.

Woods puts putting woes behind him and closes the Honda with a 62, his lowest final-round score ever on the PGA Tour and his best score since his last victory, in 2009. The feat gave evidence that he’s capable of separating again and prompted some to claim he’s back, trophy or not.

Lee Westwood, world No. 3, again serves notice that he will challenge often, having come off a T-4 at the Honda and a fourth at the Match Play.

The game elevates anytime Woods and Mickelson, the Nicklaus and Palmer of this generation, are in form heading to the Masters. The rise of McIlroy and sustained excellence of Westwood are bonuses that have enriched the landscape, as have a couple of large Sunday leads blown on the West Coast in January-February.

“It’s been an exciting year so far for the golf spectator, for the big names that have come through,” said world No. 2 Luke Donald, off to a slow start. “I’m just disappointed I haven’t been in the mix this year.”

Woods acknowledged the good times for elite golf and flashed back to early last decade, when the game had a so-called Big Five in him, Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

“(We) were all going at it for a number of years,” Woods said. “So now it’s just a different crop of guys.”

It’s possible, too, we are just scratching the surface of high-end drama. Woods-Mickelson has been as good as it gets, but the delicious prospect of Woods, the past, dueling McIlroy, the present and future, is worth pondering.

The danger is to compare McIlroy with Woods. Such an exercise is at once premature and unfair. Woods has won 72 Tour titles and 14 majors. McIlroy is at three and one and counting.

What’s more, there has been predictable talk of a possible rivalry between Woods and McIlroy. Perhaps some semblance of that could develop short-term. But let’s get real: one is 22, the other 36.

“I think it’s the media that build up the rivalries more than anyone else,” McIlroy said. “To be honest, in golf you can have a rival if you want, but at the end of the day, your biggest rival is a golf course. You have to beat that. ... If people want to say there’s a rivalry, so be it, but I don’t see myself as anyone’s rival out here.”

Golf rivalries aren’t always neatly packaged. Byron Nelson once told me that he recalled he, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead being paired together only once in Tour competition.

Rather, their common denominator, apart from each being born in 1912, is that each ruled the sport at various times and ended up among the top 10 golfers of all time.

McIlroy has that potential. For certain, observing him the next two decades will be fun. For certain, too, is that like Woods, he has shown he can be a rare separation player, someone who can suck the life out of a major championship by the lunch hour on Friday, as he did at last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional.

And like Woods, he isn’t afraid of the trappings that go along with being No. 1. Fred Couples, for one, didn’t embrace the top spot. Martin Kaymer has said his brief stay at No. 1 at times was “overwhelming.”

“It depends on what type of mind you have and if you thrive in the spotlight or if you welcome it,” said McIlroy, mature beyond his years. “I feel like I do thrive in the spotlight, and I like the attention. Not saying that I’m an attention-seeker, but you know you’re doing something right when you’re in the spotlight.”

Mickelson, 41, has known the feeling over a 40-victory Hall of Fame career. He also has known the down side during the past couple of years, before his putting stroke and in turn his enthusiasm were recently restored.

“I’m glad,” he said, “to be back in the mix.”

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