Will Rory McIlroy play the role of spoiler?

Does this 23-year-old kid stand between Tiger Woods and the history books?

Let’s be honest with ourselves here.

Tiger Woods has never had a true rival. Ever since that historic Masters’ Sunday in 1997 where he pummeled the field by 12 strokes, it’s been clear that Tiger’s biggest rival is 73-year-old Jack Nicklaus.

Nicklaus winning 18 majors is probably the most impressive golf record out there. And until Woods started collecting major championships like they were candy, nobody thought that it could be touched.

These days, post-scandal Woods is starting to look more and more like his old, dominant self. And did I mention that the 37-year-old already has 14 majors to his name? And that he’s likely to play for at least another ten years?

The record is definitely gettable.

The most interesting question going forward is whether a shaggy-haired kid from Northern Ireland might just stand in Woods’ way. Rory McIlroy, the second-ranked player behind Woods, is 23 years old and currently owns two major championships. For the record, Woods was also 23 when he picked up his second major back in 1999.

This is impressive in and of itself. But what really gets our attention is the fact that both of McIlroy’s wins, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship, were achieved in Tiger-like fashion. He won both titles by a combined 16 strokes. In both cases, Sunday was a mere coronation for the youngster. Nobody else even came close. Remind you of anybody?

So there is no doubt that McIlroy is the most promising young golfer on tour since Woods uttered “Hello World” in 1996. If anybody can challenge Woods at the majors over the next decade, it’s McIlroy.

What’s also abundantly clear is that Woods has never had a legitimate rival, the way Roger Federer has Rafael Nadal or LeBron James has Kevin Durant. Other than Woods, the active players with the most major championships are Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, with four each. For those counting at home, that’s ten less than Woods. Despite a few bumps along the way, Woods has absolutely owned the last decade or so of his sport like few other athletes ever have.

But watch out for McIlroy because he’s been doing a pretty good Woods impression as of late. These two should provide plenty of fireworks in the years to come.

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