Rory McIlroy standing in Tiger's path
What's wrong with Tiger? Is he ever going to win another major? Can he beat Rory McIlroy?
These are only a few of the questions that have intensified over the past month as McIlroy has won three of his past four events on the PGA Tour, showing the kind of dominance seemingly once reserved only for Tiger.
There is good reason for anxiety. At 23, McIlroy is the same age as Tiger Woods was when he began his long reign at the top of the game. McIlroy is mature well beyond his years. There is no wasted youth on him. He is supremely confident without being arrogant and prickly. If he stays healthy, there is no reason why with his flawless swing, evolving short game and equanimity that he can't be the best of his generation, if not one of the best of all time.
Meanwhile, Tiger needs five more majors to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major wins. Reaching that milestone would complete the arc on one of the most exciting careers in sports history. After almost three years without an official tour win, Tiger has three victories in 2012.
With 74 career wins, he is inching his way closer to Sam Snead's tour-best 82 victories. At the Deutsche Bank Championship, he went over $100 million in career tour earnings.
In every sport, the greats mark their time by the milestones they reach, especially as they grow older. An athlete knows when the shadows are lengthening on a career when the records begin to pile, and discussions become more about them reaching some statistical milestone than the results of the next game or tournament.
Rory and Tiger are on intersecting paths. Can they both have their way? Their windows of opportunity are about the same. For both of them these next five to seven years could define their careers. By then if Tiger, 36, hasn't won five more majors, it's not likely that he's going to get it done in his mid-40s, despite his stellar physical fitness.
For now it's likely that McIlroy will be the main man standing in the way of Tiger reaching Jack's record. Sure, Rory won't win every major over the next several years, but he certainly should win his share. In the end, McIlroy could be remembered as the man who stopped Tiger from breaking one of sport's most heralded records.
But don't we all want Tiger to win 19 majors?
That's the best narrative. The game will go on without Tiger's unprecedented appeal that far outreaches the mainstream golf fan, but the sport deserves this seminal moment in time.
From Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's home run record to Pete Rose besting Ty Cobb's all-time hits number to Cal Ripken's passing Lou Gehrig for consecutive games played, baseball has been very fortunate to have so many records to garner wide interest in America's pastime.
Bobby Jones' Grand Slam, Jack's major record and Snead's 82 wins were long thought to be insurmountable until Tiger came along. And now that these records are in Woods' grasp, we have McIlroy to come along to make his way more difficult.
Over the past few weeks, we've felt some of this anxiety surrounding Woods and McIlroy in the FedEx Cup playoffs. Tiger has played well on the weekends at both the Deutsche Bank and the BMW, finishing third and T-4, respectively, but it hasn't been quite good enough to beat McIlroy.
Woods has been on the leaderboards -- a good thing for TV ratings -- but McIlroy has left little doubt about who is the new commanding presence in the late afternoon of final rounds. Tiger clearly sees something of his early days in McIlroy.
Ryder Cup analysis
ESPN.com's Michael Collins will be tracking all 12 Sunday singles matches starting Sunday at noon ET.
"[Rory's] going out there and is up near the lead and posts a good number," Woods said at the BMW, where McIlroy won his second event in a row. "He's doing the things he needs to do. Right now he's just really playing well, and he's making a ton of putts. That's a great combo."
In a different time, Rory and Tiger could have made a great combo, say in the way that Jack and Arnie were in the 1960s. Both only children of doting parents, Rory and Tiger could have dueled for years, holding forth over careers at the same speed and resolve to be the very best.
But instead they are in different places. One man is trying to get where the other already has been, while the other man tries to finish off a great career with an intruder standing in his path to immortality.
Both players could reach their goals, but that's a tough proposition in a game where only one person can win every week. I know we're all anxious to see what will happen over these next few years, as one of these players is sure to make history.
MORE GOLF HEADLINES
- Tiger's bar for playing Masters: Can I win?
- Stenson named golf writers' top European
- Johnson holes out on 18, then beats Tiger
- Weekley withdraws after deaths in family
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
2012 RYDER CUP
A multitude of things needed to fall perfectly into place for Europe to match the greatest Ryder Cup comeback in history. With a little American help, that's exactly what transpired. Gene Wojciechowski
2012 champion: Europe, 14½-13½
Course: Medinah Country Club
Where: Medinah, Ill.
Rosters: U.S. | Europe
Topics: The Ryder Cup