McIlroy staying on Tiger's tail

ARDMORE, Pa. -- Rory McIlroy was walking with his father and a cop on the way out of Merion when a fan reached over a railing, shook his hand, and summoned the glories of his recent U.S. Open past.

"Just like Congressional, Rory," the man said. "Just like Congressional."

Only this was nothing like Congressional in 2011, when McIlroy beat a hapless field of barn horses by Secretariat lengths. The kid from Northern Ireland, all freckles and shaggy hair, was suddenly golf's new It Boy back then, and the one assigned a burden that no golfer of this generation, or any generation, should be asked to bear.

McIlroy was anointed the Next Tiger despite overwhelming evidence there won't ever be a Next Tiger.

Sergio Garcia. Adam Scott. Aaron Baddeley. Those three ex-Next Tigers have combined to win a grand total of one Grand Slam title, or 13 fewer than Tiger Woods, and that one wasn't seized until Scott won the Masters in April at age 32.

Yes, when a 23-year-old McIlroy scored his second major victory at last year's PGA Championship he was 128 days younger than Woods when he won his second. And yes, McIlroy is more talented than all the supposed heirs to Tiger's throne who preceded him.

But in 63 career PGA Tour starts, McIlroy has already missed nine cuts, or the same number Woods has missed in 288 starts. So Rory might be the Next Phil, or the Next Faldo, or the Next Trevino, or the Next Watson. He's just not going to be a worthy sequel to the guy he played with Thursday and Friday at Merion, and the guy he'll likely play with again Saturday from four shots back of the lead held by Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel at 1-under.

And that's A-OK, too. McIlroy seems to get this. He seems to understand that Nike's $200 million investment in him -- cool Tiger/Rory commercial included -- doesn't make the comparison of Tiger (78 PGA Tour victories) to him (6) any more legit.

Only that won't make the comparisons go poof in the night, comparisons that gain momentum when they're paired together in a major for the first time. With Woods a long way from wearing his trademark Sunday red, McIlroy stood out Friday in his bright orange Nike shirt and matched Tiger stroke for stroke, both finishing their 26-hole journey at 3-over for the tournament, likely landing them in the same third-round pairing.

McIlroy badly wanted to make his last putt of the day, a makeable birdie that would've given him a 69 to Tiger's 70, but couldn't will it into the hole.

"I was really trying to hole that putt so I didn't have to play with you again tomorrow," McIlroy joked with Woods. "You've got the pleasure of playing with me."

They shared a good laugh over that one, advancing their playful bromance. Tiger and Rory had already made like friendly, C-flight ham-and-eggers in their pairings in tour events, exhibitions in China, and match-play pickup games at the Medalist, and they spent their fair share of tee-to-green time together at Merion, where Scott looked very much like the third wheel he'd predicted he'd be.

"Of course there's banter," McIlroy said. "It doesn't change that it's a U.S. Open or whatever. We still get on well, and there's still a good bit of chatter out there, and a bit of a needle every now and again ... . It's always good if I'm playing with him."

To his credit, Woods has assumed a big-brother role with McIlroy -- Tiger was photographed at the U.S. Open champions dinner flicking the back of Rory's ear like you might imagine a young Peyton pranking a younger Eli. Woods appears to have the kind of respect for McIlroy's talent, competitiveness and athleticism that he didn't have for the challengers before him.

But then again, Arnold Palmer took Jack Nicklaus under his wing in the early days before their relationship came undone. The same thing could happen to the Tiger-Rory dynamic if McIlroy, the former No. 1 player in the world, starts regularly beating Woods, the current No. 1 player in the world, the way Jack started taking down Arnie.

Rory dusted the Open field with his record 16-under score at Congressional, but that field didn't include an injured Tiger. McIlroy did win in Woods' presence at last year's PGA, and did delete the sad images (or most of them, anyway) of his Masters meltdown in 2012 by winning multiple majors at an absurdly young age.

Only he still has a lot of growing up to do, a truth never more apparent than when he committed golf's equivalent of a felony by quitting the Honda Classic with a toothache, and a relatively mild one at that. Of course, a conquest of Woods (bad elbow and all) and Merion would suddenly leave McIlroy looking like the most mature 24-year-old on the planet.

"I've been telling everyone for a while my game's close," he said. "And to get through two rounds of the toughest test in golf, the U.S. Open, and play the way I did, it's very promising going into the weekend."

Promising? Nothing much is promising at Merion. This course is a small, angry beast that McIlroy said "puts you under pressure from that first tee shot." The threesome of Jose Maria Olazabal, Darren Clarke, and David Toms -- major winners all -- came in at a combined 43-over par, leaving the field as a big underdog for the weekend.

McIlroy said he was ready for this kind of fight. Wednesday, he ran the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Rocky Balboa form, and tweeted a picture of his arms raised in triumph. Rory said he's watched all the Rocky movies ("Is it seven or eight?" he asked), and enjoyed every last sequel.

But McIlroy understands the difference between Hollywood and a great story from his hometown of Hollywood, County Down, Northern Ireland. Deep down, Rory knows he isn't going to pull a Rocky-sized upset and become the Next Tiger.

He also knows that doesn't mean he can't beat the one and only at this U.S. Open.