Golf has a new No.1 player. He's from Northern Ireland, and he's 22 years old. There is nothing to keep him from staying on the top of the heap for years to come. Yet as I watched him hold off Tiger Woods and Tom Gillis for a 2-shot win at the Honda Classic on Sunday, I couldn't help but think about the future of American golf. As much as golf is a global game, the U.S. is the leading pro golf country in the world.
Rory McIlroy will play often over the next few months on the PGA Tour and might ultimately move to the States full time. But he will never be considered an American golfer and a product of the college system that's long been a conveyor belt to the PGA Tour. He will always be an international player with an international vision of the game.
On Sunday, McIlroy played with two Americans: Harris English, a tall, 22-year-old Georgian; and Gillis, a 43-year-old journeyman who with a tie for second earned his career-best finish.
English and McIlroy are the same age but are seemingly separated by decades in terms of experience. While English, who won as an amateur in 2011 on the Nationwide Tour, was playing college tournaments at Georgia, McIlroy was playing in pro events around the world.
English, who started the final round 2 shots back of McIlroy at 9-under par, shot a 7-over 77 on Sunday to finish in a tie for 18th. There is no doubt English will become a fine PGA Tour player. But watching him alongside McIlroy was a glaring illustration of their real age differences in golf and to a larger extent the different approaches that most U.S. players take to their careers from many of their European counterparts.
At Georgia, English went to parties and football games and earned a college education, valuable experiences that have made him a very well rounded young man. But how much did all that prepare him to compete against McIlroy in the pressure cooker of the final round of a big event?
McIlroy was four years ahead of English when they arrived on the first tee of PGA National on Sunday. McIlroy had been through the catastrophic final rounds and had seen bad conditions change a player's fortunes in a matter of seconds. He's seen it all, but he still has much to learn, as Tiger reminded us earlier this week when he said, "[Rory has] developed a lot, but also he's got a lot to learn, too."
It's not that English or any other young player should skip college, and try his luck on the mini-tours and the PGA Tour right out of high school. There have been too many horror stories over the years to warrant that kind of haphazard decision-making. Ty Tryon, who famously got his PGA Tour card in 2001 when he was 17 years old, has never had much success as a professional.
But we shouldn't ignore the steps McIlroy took to become the second-youngest person ever to reach No. 1 in the world. Had he gone to college and played with English, they would have been equals on the first tee. At a time when most American players are just starting their pro careers, McIlroy is turning the corner to the next level.
The 2011 U.S. Open champion might be the most mature 22-year-old player of the past 30 years. Tiger was already a major champion by the age of 22, but he was a man-child still growing into his body and his golf swing. Sergio Garcia was great at 19, but he was unpredictable. His game went with his emotions.
Still, American golf shouldn't panic. The vast majority of PGA Tour players will continue to play some college golf before they turn pro. It's the safest decision. So English shouldn't try to stack his game against that of McIlroy, because he's really four years behind him in development. How fast he catches up to McIlroy depends on how fast he goes through the growing pains on tour.
For the time being, golf experience wins out over life experience, at least in terms of the race to No. 1 in the world.
Tiger's 62 on Sunday at the Honda Classic was as excited as I have been for him since last year's Masters, when he made a late charge on Sunday. I think most people wanted to see Rory McIlroy come back to 10 under par late in his final round so we could see him in a playoff with Tiger. That would have made for perfect TV and a great headline: Former No. 1 halts coronation of new king.
But it wasn't to be. Starting the final round 9 shots back of McIlroy, Tiger needed a great round and some luck. For most of his 71 wins and 14 majors, he hasn't needed luck or an 8-under-par round on a Sunday. His 62 at PGA National was his career low in a final round.
Tiger did everything but win Sunday. He eagled both par-5s to go along with four birdies in a bogey-free round.
It's just a matter of time before he's back in the winner's circle. He's back. That's the conventional wisdom. Some of us thought Phil Mickelson was lost after he struggled in his first couple of tournaments of the year. But before he took a two-week break, no one was playing better golf than "Lefty."
Will Tiger have the same kind of breakthrough? Much like Mickelson, Tiger said he wasn't surprised at how well he played this week because he had been having great results in his practice sessions. Finally, the practice was paying off.
But how will he do in this new role as a guy who comes out of the pack to steal a tournament? He's always been a front-runner. There are a slew of good players who enjoy setting an early pace and then holding the ball until time runs out. McIlroy wasn't going to hand Tiger the tournament. He wasn't going to deliver the neat front-page story for the world.
As much as it seems like he conceded some authority in the game to McIlroy, Tiger also gave up the lead. In the future, McIlroy most likely will lead tournaments and Tiger will be one of the chasers. That would be a greater symbol of a new world order in the game than the holding down of a statistical-based slot on the Official World Golf Ranking.
We know Tiger can win again and that he will win again. We know that for sure. On Sunday, his red shirt seemed more vibrant than it had looked over the past few years and the fist pumps carried a new sureness. But it would serve him well to bring some of that fire to the stage on Thursdays and Fridays before he gets too far behind to catch up.
Tom Gillis was on no one's list of favorites to win the Honda Classic. When he's good, he's good, such as the third-place finish he got last year at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But when he's bad, he's bad. On the weekend last year at the Byron Nelson, he failed to break 80. Before his T-2 on Sunday at the Honda Classic, the 43-year-old Lake Orion, Mich., native had three missed cuts, a withdrawal and a tie for 40th this season.
Gillis has played all over the world and on every tour imaginable. Since turning pro in 1990, he's played for stretches on the European Tour, the Nationwide Tour and the PGA Tour. He has a story about a Jamaican caddie named Toe, who allegedly stole his shoes out of his golf bag during the Jamaican Open, back when he was in his early 20s.
At the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, Gillis shot a 90 in the first round and had to withdraw after straining ligaments in his rough-beaten wrists.
Hanging around the lead for most of the Honda Classic, Gillis was the perfect counterpoint to Rory McIlroy. Nothing had come fast for the former Oakland Community College star. He was a blue-collar guy trying to keep pace with royalty, and through four rounds, he held his own.
Golf is funny like that. The Tom Gillises of the world can come to one of the hardest tour venues and compete with all the gold-plated stars.
How did he do it?
He ranked No. 1 for the week in the strokes-gained putting category, which takes into account the distance each putt starts from the hole and then compares the number of putts taken to the average of other PGA Tour golfers from that distance. The result shows the number of putts gained or lost relative to the field.
Coming into the Honda Classic, Gillis was ranked 176th on tour in the strokes-gained stat.
In his third round, Gillis made back-to-back par saves from 34 and 28 feet. On Sunday afternoon, he made another long birdie putt on the 72nd hole to share second place with Tiger Woods.
Now he's in the field at Bay Hill, the Memorial and Colonial. Things are looking up for the journeyman, and a good deal of the credit has to go to his putter. With the $506,100 he won Sunday, hopefully he can finally forgive his pal Toe for stealing his shoes.
Hank Haney's bird's-eye view of Tiger
In an excerpt from "The Big Miss," Hank Haney's forthcoming tell-all about his six years as Tiger Woods' swing coach, the 56-year-old Dallas native revealed that the former world No. 1 considered leaving the game to become a Navy SEAL. Haney writes that Tiger did training in parachuting, self-defense, urban-warfare simulations and shooting.
"When I later learned the full truth about the dangerous exercises that Tiger engaged in with the SEALs, it caused me to question whether the greatest golfer the game has ever seen severely hampered his chance at surpassing one of the most revered marks in all of sports -- Jack Nicklaus' record [18 major victories] -- because of his fascination with the military," Haney says in the book, which is to be released March 27.
Earlier this week at the Honda Classic, Alex Miceli of Golfweek pressed Tiger about the book's revelations. In January, Tiger told ESPN.com's Bob Harig that he thought the book was "unprofessional" and "disappointing."
"There have been other one-sided books about me," Tiger said to Harig, "and I think people understand that this book is about money. I'm not going to waste my time reading it."
So on Tuesday he was in no mood to talk about the book or the Navy SEALs. After a brief back and forth with Miceli, Tiger called the Golf Channel contributor a "beauty."
I haven't read the whole book, so I'm not going to try to give a complete critique of Haney's version of his relationship with Tiger or the literary merits of the book co-authored with Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest. I'll do that at a later date. But what I can say is it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that a former employee of a public figure would write a tell-all book. There should be a sub-category within the memoir genre just for workplace drama between famous bosses and their minions. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush could spend the next 20 years of their lives reading books by their former White House aides.
Haney has every right to share insights from his years with one of the world's most iconic sports figures. Generations to come could benefit greatly from a well-told story about the 14-time major championship winner. Even if Haney's perspective on Tiger is skewed by the tensions that existed between them at the end of their business relationship, he's not a journalist with the obligation to give a fair and accurate account of what he witnessed during his time with the golfer.
Everything Haney saw in Tiger was through the lens of his own life experience. The only thing worse than an unreasonable perspective is the failure to have no perspective at all. Mark Steinberg, Tiger's agent, isn't wrong to call Haney's musings about Tiger "armchair psychology" because that's the level of analysis that we often take with our friends, family and co-workers.
How would Tiger and his agent have received the book if Haney's perspective meshed with their own?
In a Golf Digest interview that helped launched this book, Haney told Diaz, "I always felt like I knew Tiger from observing. I did not feel I knew him from knowing him." Well, sometimes that's the nature of human interactions, especially in an unequal relationship like that of a player and a teacher or a factory worker and his supervisor.
It would be easy to dismiss Haney as an opportunistic, money-hungry, disgruntled golf instructor with an ax to grind, but that would be an oversimplification. For six years, he sacrificed his relative anonymity and peace to follow one of the world's greatest athletes, and for it he was rewarded handsomely with a TV show and probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements. But everyone in close proximity to power and fame is a beneficiary in some way. So Haney shouldn't be penalized for the success he's had as a result of his connection to Tiger.
Both Tiger and Steinberg have said the book is an act of betrayal by a close, trusted friend. Perhaps Haney could have asked Tiger whether he was really serious about leaving the game to become a Navy SEAL. Everything would have been different, maybe, if Tiger had not set out to rebuild his golf swing in 2010, leading to the eventual resignation of Haney as his coach.
All of what comes out in "The Big Miss" might not be fair to Tiger or truly bring golf fans any closer to understanding the complexities of his life, but it's a story worth hearing, if for nothing else but the modicum of light it might shine on the world's greatest living golfer.
It was nice to see Rickie Fowler have a good week at Honda. His closing 66 helped him to a tie for seventh, his best finish of the season. Seeing Rory McIlroy rise to the head of the 20-somethings and to No. 1 in the world must force the 23-year-old Murietta, Calif., native to assess his own prospects of reaching No. 1. Like those of Tiger's prime, the former Oklahoma State star could find an insurmountable wall to reach McIlroy's level.
Fowler's orange-flavored Sundays are popular on the PGA Tour. He has the potential to be as big a fan draw as Tiger, Phil and John Daly. He should use both his good play this week and McIlroy's ascent as an inspiration to bring his game up to the level of the best players in the world. It's time for his game to sync with the flamboyance of the clothes.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.