Rory McIlroy breaks through with No. 1

BETHESDA, Md. -- Rory McIlroy's life changed Sunday in ways that even he can't comprehend yet. And it's not just because he won the U.S. Open by what amounted to a mercy rule, or that the Congressional Country Club course's deflector shields were useless against him.

His life changed because with the first majors victory of his career, McIlroy officially became The Next Tiger Woods. And he did it while The Present Tiger Woods still might have a few fist pumps left in him.

"I was trying to go out there and emulate him in some way," said McIlroy, who grew up in the Woods era.

He did. His 16-under-par total (he doubled up second-place finisher Jason Day at 8-under) was Tiger-esque, circa 2000 at Pebble Beach. McIlroy could have contracted the measles on the back nine and still won with ease.

So now come the comparisons to Woods. Unless, of course, you want to compare McIlroy to his new BFF, Jack Nicklaus, whose 18 career majors victories remain the Maybach of all golf records.

Woods has been stuck on 14 majors wins since 2008. He has a bum knee, a bad Achilles and he's trying to find a happy place in his personal life. He's also 35, which isn't ancient, but it isn't exactly the go-zone of his golf career.

When McIlroy smooched the U.S. Open trophy Sunday evening, he was exactly 22 years, 46 days old. That's about 10½ months older than Woods was when he won his first major in 1997, but about 3½ months younger than Nicklaus when he won his first in 1962.

This matters because the majors clock is now ticking on McIlroy. Like it or not, you can argue that McIlroy might have a better chance of tying or surpassing Nicklaus' record than Woods does. Woods has a 13-major lead on the Northern Irishman, but McIlroy leads Tiger in the health category: no surgical scars on his knees, no emotional scars on his personal life. He also has at least -- what -- 20 more good years and 80 more majors left in his career?

"There's a long way to go, isn't there?" said McIlroy's agent, Chubby Chandler, who hinted that Rory might increase his U.S. playing presence. "Certainly he has the talent."

With that, there can be no argument. Like Woods, McIlroy was a child golf prodigy. Like Woods, he's off to an early majors start.

But Woods keeps the media at a distance. He talks, but he rarely reveals. McIlroy has been taught by his agent and by his fellow European Tour buddies, such as Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, to treat the media not as adversaries, but as partners of sorts.

And then there is McIlroy's game itself. If his swing were any sweeter, you'd get tooth decay. It is built for decades of use. McIlroy hits it farther than some shuttle flights, he has a short game to die for and he has the right disposition.

"He's the best player I've ever seen," said McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open, giving Northern Ireland the stateside back-to-back. "I didn't have a chance to play with Tiger when he was in his real [prime], and this guy is the best I've ever seen, simple as that. He's great for golf. He's a breath of fresh air for the game, and perhaps we're ready for golf's next superstar, and maybe Rory is it."

Hear that, Tiger?

McIlroy's career has been a series of lessons learned. He learned from shooting a crash-and-burn 80 the day after posting an opening-round 63 at St. Andrews a year ago. He learned from missing out on a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship. He learned from the final-round meltdown 80 at Augusta National in April.

"Augusta was a very valuable experience for me," McIlroy said. "I knew what I needed to do today to win."

Dave Stockton Sr., the putting guru and two-time major winner, has been working with McIlroy since after the Masters collapse. The advice he gives is simple: Sloooow down … enjoy the moment … maybe even high-five a fan to break the tension.

What happened? During Saturday's round, when the birdies and fairways hit weren't coming as easily for McIlroy, he dialed back the anxiety. The proof was apparent on Page 6 of Sunday's Washington Post sports section.

The photo caption: U.S. Open leader Rory McIlroy slaps hands with 2-year-old spectator Alexander Nalda.

None of this means McIlroy will surpass Nicklaus. Or Tiger. He first needs to reach Greg Norman's two majors. Harrington's three. Phil Mickelson's four. Seve Ballesteros' five. Nick Faldo's six. Arnold Palmer's seven. Tom Watson's eight. Ben Hogan's nine. Walter Hagen's 11. Then it gets serious.

Right now, McIlroy has the one victory. But he conceivably could have had three by now. Maybe that's why Harrington -- who has done the math and has observed McIlroy's early career arc -- told reporters, "If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack's record, there's your man."

And this from the No. 1-ranked Luke Donald: "I think he has probably the most talent I've ever seen from a golfer."

That's a lot of golf weight to put on the shoulders of the 5-foot-9, 160-pound McIlroy (10 pounds of it is curly hair). But he handled the train wreck at the Masters with dignity and grace, standing in the Augusta National locker room until we ran out of questions to answer. If he can deal with defeat, he can deal with success, right?

If anything, I think McIlroy's emergence will help energize Woods. I'm not ready to short Woods' tournament stock anytime soon. He found a way to win a U.S. Open on one leg. He'll figure out a way to win again on one that is surgically repaired.

First, though, he needs to fix his knee and Achilles with rest and rehab. He needs to fix his swing. He needs to find that happy place. When he does, the car chase of Nicklaus' record will begin again.

McIlroy started his own chase Sunday. He did what Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Donald haven't done -- win major No. 1. That's always the hardest part. Woods would say the same thing.

"Maybe," Chandler said, "it's the start of the Rory McIlroy era."

Not maybe. Definitely.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.