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Rory's rise hands Tiger a blueprint

"I wonder what Tiger is thinking?"

An ESPN.com reader posed this question to me on Sunday night after Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship at the Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, for his second consecutive major championship and fourth overall.

What was going through the mind of the 14-time major champion, sitting perhaps somewhere on a plush sofa after missing the cut at Valhalla by 5 shots?

Maybe these are the interior mutterings of a man watching the future of the game pass before him on his HD TV.

I am bad at golf.

Anything I can do with a golf club, Rory can do better.

He is longer and straighter off the tee than I am.

He putts better.

He is younger and healthier.

He wants to be me.

I can't beat him.

I have created a monster.

Doesn't anybody remember that I won five times in 2013?

I'm not going back to Butch Harmon. Sean Foley is my coach.

I need more reps.

I must get back to the gym for more explosive lifting.

After what McIlroy has done over the last month on the golf course, the Northern Irishman has to be in the heads of every professional golfer, but particularly Tiger, who was the man from the day he turned pro in the summer of 1996 at the Greater Milwaukee Open.

Now the 38-year-old, 79-time PGA Tour winner is a player on the outside looking in at greatness, struggling to recapture the game that defined a generation.

To Tiger, Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors has to now rate as a minor concern, compared to the difficulty he faces just trying to win his 15th major, a point made recently by Nick Faldo, a six-time major champion.

"Who knows if Tiger will even win a 15th major when you think he's got to beat the likes of Rory McIlroy and people like that," Faldo said. "It will be unbelievable if he can win a 15th major. I personally think it will be the greatest achievement in his career."

Perhaps the best aspect of McIlroy's emergence for Tiger is that he knows exactly whom he has to beat and the type of game he needs to do it.

Through the years, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, David Duval, Bob May and Ernie Els, among others, have been formidable challengers to Tiger, but McIlroy represents a different mental hurdle for the former Stanford All-American.

For the first time in his pro career, Tiger is truly not the best player in the world. Others have held No. 1 in the world in his era, but Tiger has still topped them all through injury, scandal and swing breakdowns.

Now Tiger must look up to McIlroy the way others looked to Woods in his prime in the early-to-mid 2000s as the player you want to beat to elevate your career to a new stature.

Tiger's current situation must now force him to ask certain questions, whenever he tees it up in an event with Rory in the field.

What is Rory doing on the course? How is what he shoots a good gauge of the difficulty and conditions out there?

The most important lesson that Tiger could learn from watching McIlroy at Hoylake, Firestone and Valhalla is how to consistently hit the driver with power and accuracy and its importance in this age of the long golf ball and 7,500-yard courses.

There is a special sense of arrival when Tiger shows up at tournament venue. With the air of a head of state, he exudes confidence and supremacy. For years, he could be that way because he showed up armed with an arsenal of shots that made him almost unbeatable.

McIlroy now commands that perch. And his most potent weapon is the driver. With a 310.7 average, he ranks third on tour in driving distance and 11th in total driving. He is long and straight and that fact has been well illustrated in his three consecutive wins.

Whenever he needed a perfect drive, McIlroy executed it with a surgical efficiency. At the par-5 10th hole on Sunday when he was 3 back of the lead at the PGA, he hit a perfectly placed 300-plus yard drive that set up a 284-yard 3-metal approach and eagle putt that got him back into the tournament.

Meanwhile, Tiger has no such control over his driver. He doesn't have enough drives on the season to get a ranking, but he's only hit 55 percent of his fairways. And without command of his driver, he is less likely than McIlroy to play holes aggressively.

At Valhalla, Tiger had a two-way miss and at times it looked like he was trying to steer the ball into the fairway, instead of fully releasing the club with the boldness and confidence necessary for accurate and long tee shots.

In fairness, Tiger is not yet back to full strength after the back surgery in late March, but he has a long road ahead to compete regularly with McIlroy.

Golf prognosticators had fun at Valhalla debating whether it was Tiger's bad back, lack of play, golf swing or some combination of the three that explained his poor performance in recent weeks.

Yet even if Tiger solves all three of these problems, it might not be enough on his best day to beat McIlroy.

Tiger has much to think about this offseason. Hopefully, in his time away from competition, he will take good notes on McIlroy's performance the next several weeks in the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup.

If Woods doesn't learn something from observing the 25-year-old, Tiger will have many more weekends to watch the best players in the world on his HD TV as they battle for the major championships that he so covets.