Nicklaus already had the record for most majors when Watson won his first one, although Watson kept him from winning more. He beat Nicklaus twice in 1977, in the Masters and in the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry. He beat him again in 1981 at Augusta National and kept him from a record five U.S. Open titles in 1982 at Pebble Beach when Watson chipped in for birdie on the 17th hole.
McIlroy is 13 years younger than Woods. They have never gone head-to-head on Sunday in a major. Ultimately, that will be the measure. Along the way, however, McIlroy is stashing away large bits of confidence that few others could when Woods was at his peak.
There is no reason for McIlroy to be intimidated. His name on the leaderboard means just as much. He is a favorite in any color shirt.
Nick Faldo once explained why Woods had such a huge advantage in the majors. Faldo thought after the 1997 Masters that Augusta National would be the only place Woods could win a major because the golf course suited him and because it was the only major where the media was kept outside the ropes. Only later did he realize that Woods was the only one who could handle the commotion inside the ropes in the final round.
“Other guys will step into that arena one week and go back out,” Faldo said in a 2007 interview. “He’s there all the time. And good luck coming into his world.”
McIlroy now has been atop the leaderboard 10 out of the last 40 rounds in the majors.
He has more experience than most his age, good and bad. What he took away from blowing a four-shot lead in the 2011 Masters was to set a target score. He set his target at 12-under par at Kiawah Island, played the final round without a bogey and did one better than that by finishing at 13-under 275.
“I feel these days when I give myself a chance to win one of these big tournaments, I can draw on the memories of Augusta, of Congressional, and now of today,” he said Sunday at Kiawah. “And know what I did out there, and know what to do again.”
Woods lost two full years because of the strife he created in his personal life, and then more leg injuries, and then hiring his third swing coach.
In handicapping Woods‘ chances of breaking the record, one popular analogy was that he would have to match Phil Mickelson’s career wins in the majors (four) just to tie the record. This never made much sense, though, because Woods and Mickelson never belonged in the same conversation when the topic was majors. Mickelson went 42 majors before he won his first. Woods had won 12 of them in the same span. They’re not the same player, then or now.
The main problem for Woods has been his head. His game is in great shape, and he knows it. He is pressing to win a major, to resume his pursuit of Nicklaus and shut up the critics. But this is the wrong game to try too hard. Maybe that’s one lesson to take away from Kiawah.
The bigger problem could turn out to be McIlroy.