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McIlroy Registers on the Phenom Indicator

August 19th, 2009 · 1 Comment

One thing about these prodigies – they all produced at a very young age. Not just talk, they posted a finish high on the leaderboard of a major, which is no small accomplishment

Whenever a prodigy comes along and produces, and it not just a figment of the media’s imagination, he gets our attention.

As far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong) a grand total of just six players in the Modern Era (1958 on) have cracked the top 5 in a major before turning 21. Below are the members of this prestigious club:

Jack Nicklaus – second – 1960 US Open  – 2 back
Seve Ballesteros – second – 1976 British Open – age 19 – 6 back
Justin Rose – fourth  – 1998 British Open – age 17 – 2 back
Sergio Garcia –  second, 1999 PGA – age 19 – 1 back
Chris Wood – fifth – 2008 British Open – 20 – 7 back
Rory McIlroy – third, 2009 PGA – age 20 – 5 back

As an indicator of greatness, the Phenom High Finish indicator has not done too badly. Nicklaus only became the Best Ever while Ballesteros was one of the three best of the 1980s.

Our next two, Garcia and Rose, have unfortunately morphed from phenoms into potential late bloomers. They could still join the Top 10 of the Modern Era should they win a half dozen majors or so, but that’s looking increasingly doubtful. Next up is Chris Wood, has little to show for his last two years on the European Tour except, and it’s a big except, a fifth in the Open at age 20 and a third this year at age 21. So perhaps there is greatness residing within that’s going to explode in the near future.

And that brings us to the phenom of phenoms. In the last 50 years, there probably hasn’t been more press or excitement about a player so young as there’s been for Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and McIlroy. He has produced at the majors this year in such a manner that it’s hard to imagine this can’t miss player will miss at his shot at greatness on a major scale.

McIlroy, however, needs to get one thing drilled in his head, and now. Time waits for no prodigy. He may think he has all of the time in the world to bust through and start piling up majors. And he does if aspires to join the ranks of that second tier below Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods that is populated by the likes of Walter Hagen, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Bobby Jones, and Sam Snead.

But if his goal is to become the Best Ever, he must understand that the Majors Clock is ticking. To climb Mount Nicklaus or Woods, he must set his compass for a major a year, on average, for about two decades. An early start (say age 23 or younger) is mandatory. That gives young McIlroy eight majors to board the major’s train and develop that career momentum that is needed to pile up majors. With the talent he displayed at this year’s majors such lofty expectations are not out of line. For the record, he went 20t, 10t, 47t, 3t in 2009. Excluding the British Open, that’s a steady progression towards first place.

And McIlroy did it with a gorgeous swing that produces awesome distance (he was third in driving distance at the PGA) and precision (he was 6t in GIR at the PGA as well). In short, he does it the Nicklaus and Woods way with ball striking, not smoke and mirrors and short game magic.

While the FedExCup looms ahead (double yawn) and the President’s Cup (yawn) , the big stories in golf revolve around a fascinating cast of characters and what they will do at the majors in 2009. Stories like Woods and his putting, Harrington’s revival (he was third in GIR at the PGA), Mickelson and his gurus, and the rest of the gang will give fans plenty to talk about until the serious action begins anew next April.

And when spring arrives and its Masters time, one of the most intriguing stories of all will be the possible rise to superstardom of that curly haired kid from Ireland.

Tags: Challengers · The Majors


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 BD // Aug 19, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    All this demonstrates is that it’s extraordinarily rare for a player to finish in the top 5 in a major by age 21. However, that achievement doesn’t seem all that significant in terms of portending future major wins by the same player. Only 2 of the 5 previous members of this under-21-top-5 club have even won majors.

    Also, as far as winning boatloads of majors goes, I’m not sure how important it is to start in one’s early 20s. By far, the most important factor is to be the best golfer of one’s time. This is the main reason Jack, Tiger, Bobby Jones, and Hogan were able to win so many majors. Next important is reaching one’s peak at a time when there ISN’T another dominant player winning a boatload of majors. Watson, I think, is a good example of a player with good timing. He came of age, majors-wise, just as Jack was starting to fade. Arnie, by contrast, saw his run of majors end in lage part because of Jack’s emergence.

    Beyond these things, I think figuring out how to play well LATER in one’s career is probably more important than winning early. Even Nicklaus won as many majors AFTER age 40 (three) as he did BEFORE age 25. For the vast majority of major championship winners, their primes came in their late 20s to early 40s, and their overall place in the record-books is determined primarily by how efficiently they racked up wins during this time, NOT by starting particularly young.

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