At the young age of 23, Rory McIlroy has already won nine professional events, including two major championships.
McIlroy is unquestionably the best young talent since a wiry young fella from Southern California took the golf world by storm back in 1996.
Although Tiger Woods won twice in 1996, he didn’t truly assume his thrown atop the golf world until his dominant performance at the 1997 Masters. Woods then followed his strong 1997 season with an off-year in 1998 where he won just a single tournament while going through his first swing overhaul with Butch Harmon.
The remainder of Woods’ career has been a series of incredibly high peaks followed by a number of valleys. Woods completely dominated the game between 1999 and 2002. He then went through another swing overhaul, this time with Hank Haney, during which he had an average year in 2003 and won just once in 2004.
Woods began heating up again in 2005 and would proceed to dominate the game right up until his epic victory at the 2008 U.S. Open while playing on a broken leg and torn ACL.
In 2009, Woods won six times but failed to capture a major, and of course his severe struggles between 2010 and 2011 have now been well documented. Woods made a bit of a comeback in 2012 but is still in search of his first major title since 2008.
That has essentially been Woods’ career to date: incredible hot streaks followed by a few cold spells.
McIlroy has taken a high-speed elevator to the top of the golf world over the past 18 months. He is dating a tennis star, has become a worldwide celebrity and is about to sign a massive equipment contract, most likely with Nike.
McIlroy is essentially going to be the first professional golfer to truly enter Woods’ world since, well, Woods. So, the big question becomes, how will McIlroy deal with it all both on and off the course?
Will he become sick of the fame and turn into a recluse while not out on tour?
Will he struggle with a sophomore slump after rising to the top of professional golf over the past 18 months?
Will McIlroy’s career mimic Woods’ in terms of a series of highs and lows, or will McIlroy be a more consistent yet not as dominant superstar?
Or will McIlroy be just as dominant yet not as streaky as Woods, thus leading to a career that could be even more successful than Woods’?
The answers to all of these questions will likely come down to just two aspects of McIlroy’s game: his desire and his putter.
Woods was able to completely dominate the game of golf due to his unyielding drive to be the best and his ability to make seemingly every big putt for more than a decade.
McIlroy has shown that he does have a drive to be the best, but that drive is probably not as strong as Woods’ desire was during his earlier years on tour.
McIlroy has also shown that, although he can handle major championship pressure, he most likely will never be as good on the greens as Woods was during his prime.
Despite four wins in 2012, McIlroy still ranked 82nd on tour in stokes gained putting. The fact that he is still able to string together dominant stretches despite being just average on the greens speaks to the incredibly level of talent McIlroy possesses throughout all other areas of his game.
However, history has shown that few players are able to remain consistently dominant, or even reach two-to-three-year peaks, without a very strong putter. Sam Snead was probably the one exception to this rule, but that is also why Snead only won seven majors despite being one of the top-three ball-strikers to have ever lived.
Some might point to Ben Hogan as well, but Hogan was actually a very good putter during the prime of his career. It wasn’t until the later stages of his career that he lost his ability on the greens, which resulted in numerous majors slipping away despite the rest of his game being as sharp as ever.
There are a number of different ways McIlroy’s career can go over the next 10 to 20 years.
McIlroy has already answered virtually all questions as it pertains to his level of talent. But there are still two underlying questions that will likely determine the heights McIlroy will wind up reaching in this game: Does he have the drive, and can he continue to make the big putts?