Fourteen years ago this spring, the golf world witnessed the remarkable majors debut of Tiger Woods, who won the Masters at 21. Woods only finished 19th in the U.S. Open two months later at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club but he still ascended to the top spot in the rankings after only 42 weeks as a pro.
The Open returned to Congressional this past week and history might be repeating itself in the person of Rory McIlroy. Two months after blowing a four-shot final day lead at the Masters by carding an 80, the highest score ever for a third round leader at Augusta, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland cruised like a Porsche at Congressional.
How good was McIlroy? His 16-under score of 268 was the furthest below par and set a record for fewest strokes in the Open’s 117 years. He became just the sixth Open winner to lead from start to finish. He failed to record a par or better on just four of 72 holes and didn’t three-putt until the 71st hole by which point he had virtually lapped the field en route to an eight-stroke victory.
The only younger golfer to win a major during the last 80 years was Woods in that 1997 Masters. The last Open champion younger was the man who first really popularized the sport in this country, Bobby Jones, way back in 1923.
Of course, winning one Open doesn’t guarantee a golfer — even one as young and promising as McIlroy — continued success in majors. Orville Moody, Lou Graham, Jerry Pate and Steve Jones all triumphed at the Open and never won another major.
In contrast, such immortals as Sam Snead, Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros and Ben Crenshaw never won an Open but are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
However, McIlroy’s play in Bethesda added further credence to the idea that he’s the new king of the links after finishing third in the PGA Championship in 2009 and 2010 and leading the 2010 British Open after the first round before his first three rounds at this year’s Masters.
For all of those wondering who was going to rule the sport that Woods dominated for more than a decade, it looks like Congressional provided the answer: McIlroy.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.