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Sunday, August 12, 2012
Updated: August 13, 4:09 PM ET
Opportunity knocks for Rory McIlroy

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

Tiger Woods has a page on his official website that compares his major victories by age to Jack Nicklaus. By 23, the Golden Bear had three majors and Tiger had two. The chart also shows each player's number of PGA Tour wins. When Tiger was 23, he had eight wins on tour to Nicklaus' five.

Having a handy list around like this is good for Tiger to keep track of how his career stacks up over time against the 18-time major champion. Woods might take some solace from the fact Jack didn't win a major when he was 36, either.

On Sunday at the PGA, much was made of the fact Rory McIlroy took his second major championship at the ripe old age of 23, just a few months younger than Tiger was by the time he got No. 2.

It's a convenient way of comparing the two players, separated by nearly 14 years in age. For McIlroy, the comparisons could help him focus his work in the next several years. Every player yearns to win majors and lots of tour events, but few have the talent of this man from Holywood, Northern Ireland.

Tiger's career trajectory can be a helpful compass for McIlroy as he tries to chart his own journey that could someday stand up as one of the greatest of all time. Woods won 11 majors between the ages of 23 and 30. As much as Tiger would like to make a return to that former glory, at 36, his most prolific days are behind him.

Rory is just starting the passage Tiger began when he won the 1999 PGA at age 23. From there, Tiger would go on to have one of the greatest runs in all of professional sports. In 2000, he won nine tournaments, including three majors.

Can Rory be that good? How important are the next several years to his career? The ambitious kid who once said that Tiger didn't cause the same fear in players as he once did in his prime isn't making bold claims about his own future.

"You know, I'd love to sit up here and tell you that I'm going to do the same thing, but I just don't know," McIlroy said Sunday night. "It's been great to win my first major last year and to back that up with another one this year; I can't ask for any more.

"I just want to keep working hard, keep practicing, and hopefully there's a few more of these in my closet when my career finishes."

Rory doesn't have to be so modest. His win at the PGA should be a launching pad for a new phase in his development as a player. He is good enough to take Tiger's long view of things. From the very beginning, Tiger wasn't interested in taking incremental steps to winning majors.

He always had Jack in his sights; the man's records and activities are etched into Tiger's mind. Through the years, Tiger hasn't so much been facing off against contemporaries such as Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els as he has been trying to pursue Nicklaus. The rivalry that was promised at that '99 PGA between Tiger and Sergio Garcia never came into fruition. Mickelson, Els, Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh and others have made their mark in the majors, but they didn't come close to the achievements of Tiger.

In his time, McIlroy might not have a real rival. He might not even have standout performers of the caliber of an Els or Mickelson. There are a lot of good young players on the scene, but few have shown McIlroy's rare combination of talent, confidence and perspective.

As the standard-bearer of excellence for his generation, Tiger's achievements show the best route for Rory's future. He should study Tiger's work in those years from 23 to 30 for clues and actions that could bear fruit for his own game. Every year, Tiger got better, through swing changes and injuries that helped sharpen his focus on his goals.

Tiger might have something to say about being looked upon as a near wax figure in the game, past his prime and vulnerable to upstarts such as McIlroy. Woods still believes he can win many more majors and take back No. 1 in the world. It's not out of the question, especially with his three wins in 2012.

But Rory is in a better place in his career to win majors. Jack won only three more majors after he turned 36. Tiger knows his hero's record. That's why he is so dedicated to exercise and fitness. At 46, the age when Jack won the '86 Masters, Tiger wants to still be blossoming as a player.

Yet now is the time for McIlroy to fasten his grip on the game. How good he becomes over the next several years will depend on how well he is attuned to Tiger's record book -- his 14 majors and 74 wins; his 11 majors from 23 to 30.

Rory was very pleased to get back to No. 1 in the world with his win at Kiawah Island, but that status is just a byproduct of winning big tournaments. Before 1986, such a list didn't even exist. Nicklaus never topped the rankings, so it's not a tally Tiger keeps on the Golden Bear. The majors spreadsheet is surely the one Tiger knows best.

Rory has to create one of his own with his name and Tiger's accomplishments. He shouldn't worry about what Tiger is doing now. McIlroy can't concern himself with trying to contend with Tiger's full body of work. Tiger will add more majors and regular tour wins before his career is done. But Woods' tally of 11 majors between 23 and 30 is attainable for Rory. It's a window of opportunity he can't miss.