- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In the quest to anoint golf's next great player, Rory McIlroy's name has certainly been on the tips of tongues, his recent play in winning two of the game's biggest events a huge source of discussion.
But while he is only 25, McIlroy had already evoked images of greatness several years ago, heightened by his romps to victory at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, tournaments he won by 8 shots each.
That kind of domination led to comparisons with Tiger Woods, who early in his career won the Masters by 12, the U.S. Open by 15 and the Open Championship by 8.
And when McIlroy was leading the Open three weeks ago at Royal Liverpool -- by 6 shots heading into the final round -- it seemed a good time to ask Woods whether McIlroy reminded him of, well, himself in winning majors dominantly.
"The way he plays is pretty aggressively," Woods said while McIlroy was in the midst of the final round, eventually winning the Claret Jug by two strokes. "When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It's one or the other. If you look at his results, he's kind of that way. Very similar to what Phil [Mickelson] does.
"He has his hot weeks [and ones] where he's off. And that's just the nature of how he plays the game. It's no right way or wrong way. But it's just the nature of how he plays."
While that might read a bit harsh, Woods has a point. Yet it's not completely accurate.
Though McIlroy's results have mirrored Mickelson's in many ways, especially as it pertains to their relative inconsistency and aggressiveness, there have also been signs of Woods in his success.
And if you are going to take from Tiger and Phil ... well, it's not so bad to be a hybrid of the top two players of the past two decades, who have combined for 19 major titles and 121 PGA Tour wins.
McIlroy, for his part, sees himself playing his own game and doing his own thing. He has made a point of saying he has no number of major championship wins in mind, he'd just like to get the fourth -- which he could do this week at the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday morning at Valhalla Golf Club.
And that is one area where the Mickelson comparison does not hold up. Mickelson famously took until age 33 to win his first major championship at the 2004 Masters. It had become an every-major storyline: When is Lefty going to get his first? Is he the best player without a major?
Mickelson long maintained, however, that he didn't want to win only one, but multiple majors, and he has followed that up by capturing a total of three green jackets, the PGA Championship and last year's Open Championship for a total of five.
McIlroy, meanwhile, joined Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players in the modern era to hold three major championships by age 25. And the dominating performances in his victories -- by the 8-shot margin at the first two, the way he hit his driver and putted at the last -- served as a reminder of the way Woods played.
For many of Woods' major victories, there seemed an air of inevitability about the outcome. Certainly when McIlroy took big leads in all of his major wins, it appeared he was in control.
Then again, there's the 2010 Masters. McIlroy had a 4-shot lead through 54 holes ... and imploded. It is a credit to him that he bounced back to win the very next major, but that's not something Woods ever did. That was more Mickelson-esque, as Lefty has had his share of major heartbreak.
And of course there's the inconsistency. McIlroy has been up and down, far more than Woods -- they've both missed 10 cuts in their PGA Tour careers, even though Woods has been a pro nearly 13 years longer. Mickelson has missed 70 cuts.
"I think for me it's all a mental thing," McIlroy said. "If I can get myself in the right frame of mind week in, week out, and give myself some little mental triggers throughout the week like I did at the Open Championship, then hopefully I'll have a lot more of those weeks.
"Everyone's going to have bad weeks. It's inevitable. It's going to happen. We're not machines or robots. We're human beings, and it's just hard to keep that level up for an extended amount of time. Tiger has obviously done it. He was at the top of the game for like 10, 12, 15 years in a row. But he still had bad weeks -- or whatever a bad week was for him ... 10th or whatever.
"I think that's just the thing that I'd like to do a little bit more of, make my bad weeks a little better. So instead of a missed cut, at least grind it out and try to finish in the top 10 or whatever it is."
Sergio Garcia has finished second to McIlroy at each of the last two tournaments, and he has had his duels with Woods over the years.
"Obviously they are both great players," Garcia said. "But when they are both at their best, to me it seems like Rory is less afraid of hitting driver, and when he's hitting as well as he's hitting it now, he'll hit it very far and quite straight. So obviously it makes a lot of holes a lot easier. It's an advantage."
No doubt, McIlroy's strength is his driver. It is clearly the hallmark of his game, and when it's on, everything else seems to fall into place.
When Woods was younger, his strength went beyond the driver. It was never his best club, but his ability to hit laser iron shots, plus chip and putt, helped him stand out.
So does that make McIlroy less like Woods and more like Mickelson? Again, it appears to be a combination of both. Mickelson's short game has been a big part of his success, but so has his ability to drive the ball in play when he's at his best.
"I just think what I saw [McIlroy] doing last week is playing to his strength, which is the driver," Mickelson said. "He's such a great driver of the golf ball. He kept playing the course aggressively and making birdies.
"As long as he continues to play to his strength, he's going to be making birdies and winning golf tournaments. He's just a very good talent. We've been waiting a year, a year and half now for it to turn, and it's really turned for him now."
The comparisons are inevitable, but if you're Rory, taking a little from both isn't such a bad thing.