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Rory McIlroy part of a living legacy

AUGUSTA, Ga.

Turns out, history has a sense of humor.

And I'm guessing this morning, Tiger Woods does not.

For it was a day just like this 14 years ago that Woods made golf history. He was a 21-year-old playing in his third Masters when he blew the field away in 1997, entering the final round with the largest lead in tournament history.

It is not hyperbole to say Woods changed a sport that day. He took a game of country clubs and older men and introduced it to the masses.

That would include a 7-year-old boy in Northern Ireland who watched in fascination that Sunday afternoon with his working-class father.

And now it is 21-year-old Rory McIlroy who is playing in his third Masters and entering the final round today with the largest lead Augusta National has seen since that remarkable day 14 years ago.

"That's when Tiger sort of grabbed all our imaginations and won it by 12 and broke so many records," McIlroy said Saturday. "It was a huge moment in the game of golf."

And so the man who was once in charge of making golf history is looking more and more like a reluctant witness as he watches the aftermath of his own success.

For McIlroy entered the sport acting the same way Woods did nearly a generation ago. He talks of records. He focuses on majors. And he does not flinch in the face of older and more accomplished golfers.

Just like 23-year-old Jason Day, who is in a four-way tie for second. Day, the son of a shipping clerk and meat-packer in Australia, became obsessed with golf after reading a Woods biography as a teenager.

In some ways, this might be Woods' greatest legacy. That he introduced golf to a new generation of athletes while giving the sport a rock-star sensibility. Not that any of that was much consolation to Woods on Saturday.

Particularly when he had to watch McIlroy play the kind of round that Woods once made famous. McIlroy was steady. He was assured. He was completely unflappable.

The day was supposed to be about Woods continuing the charge that began late Friday afternoon when a string of birdies on the back nine brought him within three strokes of the lead.

Yet it was Woods who blinked when the weekend began Saturday afternoon. He had a bogey on the first hole and never seemed to right himself. Woods played fairly well but kept coming up a half-inch short of birdie putts.

And it was McIlroy who showed a steely confidence after briefly surrendering the lead to Day on the fifth hole. McIlroy, who blew a big lead in the British Open last year, did not get too aggressive, nor did he panic.

He got the lead back after one hole and then began to put some distance between himself and the rest of the field on the back nine.

"I've been talking about it with my little team all year, about playing stress-free golf," said McIlroy, trying to become the first wire-to-wire winner at the Masters since Gary Player in 1974. "Last year, I had a chance to win a lot of tournaments, and I didn't do it because of a few little mistakes here and there. Patience was huge for me (Saturday)."

They might be linked by their talent — and later today by history — but Woods and McIlroy have little else in common.

Woods is famously single-minded when it comes to golf. His focus and determination do not seem to waver once he reaches the first tee on Thursday.

McIlroy is more of a loose cannon. He is sharing a house with a handful of friends from Ireland, and they have sampled what little nightlife Augusta has to offer.

Before he shows up for his final round today, McIlroy is planning to get up this morning so he can watch an Internet feed of his hometown Ulster playing Northhampton in the quarterfinals of the Heineken Cup rugby tournament.

His friends have been following him around the course, and they were joined Saturday by 2010 U.S. Open winner, and fellow Irishman, Graeme McDowell, who missed the cut.

"Actually, he just texted me and told me he loves me," McIlroy said of McDowell during his news conference. "I don't know what that means. I don't know if that's him or the beer talking."

McIlroy might have a little more free spirit in him than Woods, but he is very aware of his place in the game and understands the significance of winning a major at 21.

He was asked if winning the tournament today would mean as much for the sport as Woods' victory 14 years ago.

"Not really," McIlroy said. "You know, he's done so much more for the game than I ever could, or will."

McIlroy should know.

He's living proof.

Rory McIlroy part of a living legacy 04/09/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 10, 2011 8:09pm]

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