Rory McIlroy will go for the career Grand Slam at the Masters next April, but for now, that is the furthest thing from his mind.
After winning the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool last month to claim a third major title at the age of 25, the Irishman told reporters that the most important major is the next one.
That would be the 96th PGA Championship this week at Valhalla, and he is the heavy favorite after also winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last week to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings that he lost last year.
“I just wanted to win a major, didn’t think more than that, about records or of being world No. 1,” said McIlroy, who also won the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. “Being a major winner was the only thing.
“And all I’ve ever said since 2011 is that if I get to two, I’ll try to get to three, if I get to three, I’ll try to get to four and so on. Putting a number on it just gives you more pressure, more expectation. I don’t think it’s fair on myself. If I can just keep adding to the number regularly … I don’t have a set number I want to get to.”
Of course, Tiger Woods took the opposite approach since he posted Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories on his bedroom wall while growing up in Cypress, Calif.
Woods looked a good bet to break the mark when he captured the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in an epic 19-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate to claim his 14th major title. That was his last major win, however.
Tiger was set for a return to Valhalla, where he won the PGA in 2000, but that is up in the air after he sustained a recurrence of back pain last week and withdrew on the ninth hole in the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Woods hoped to impress Tom Watson enough to earn a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup next month, but he has played only three times since undergoing back surgery March 31.
It was not known if the latest back injury was related to the surgery.
“Well, I’d like to win the next two tournaments I’m in,” Woods told reporters as he left Royal Liverpool following a tie for 69th, his worst finish in a major when he didn’t miss the cut. “That should take care of that.”
Of course, that won’t happen since Tiger did not win at Firestone, where he claimed eight titles previously, and now the rest of his season is in jeopardy, not only the PGA, but the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup.
As he left Firestone on Sunday, Woods was asked by reported if he could play at Valhalla. “I don’t know,” he said.
Until his back went into spasms after he hit a shot and fell backward on the second hole of the final round at Firestone, Woods didn’t seem to have any back issues in his recent events and seemed pleased with his progress, if not the results.
“I’m still building,” said Woods, who was hoping it would all come together this week at Valhalla, where he beat Bob May in a memorable three-hole aggregate playoff to win the 2000 PGA. “I’m still working on my game. And I’m still getting stronger and faster.”
Much of the talk since the Open Championship was about McIlroy being the second coming of Woods, something both of them disagree with.
They seem to believe he is more like the second-best player of the Woods Era.
“The characteristics of my game are more like those of Phil (Mickelson) than Tiger, but the major wins now suggest something different in terms of my career path,” said McIlroy, who is only two behind Lefty in major titles. “I’ve won three majors by 25, and Phil won his first at 34, although he has obviously had an incredible time in the majors since.”
Added Woods: “When (Rory) gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad.”
Woods had many peaks and few valleys when he was McIlroy’s age, with his problems coming in recent years as injuries and his much-chronicled off-the-course problems finally made him appear mortal as he approaches 40.
McIlroy, who already served a term as No. 1 in the world before losing it during a forgettable 2013 season, seems the most likely of the young guns to claim the mantle of best player in the game.
There are others to watch this week at Valhalla, including Mickelson, Adam Scott of Australia, defending champion Jason Dufner, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia of Spain and Rickie Fowler, who finished in the top five in all three majors so far this season.
“There weren’t rankings back in the day and guys won a lot of majors, and that’s how they’re remembered,” said Scott, who claimed his only Grand Slam title at the 2013 Masters. “My goal is to win majors, and now I can say ‘majors’ and not just one.”
Every major winner isn’t aiming for Nicklaus, but they are all counting.