Tiger Woods. (AP Photo)
BRADENTON: As a golf prodigy growing up in Northern Ireland,
not only yearned to compete against his idol Tiger
but also hoped to become his good friend. Both dreams came true.
That might explain why
was miffed when asked Wednesday if he thought that Woods, given his history of rallying from past physical setbacks, might be especially suited to overcome the extensive leg injuries he sustained in a harrowing car crash Tuesday.
"He's not Superman," McIlroy responded. "I think everyone should just be grateful that he's here, that he's alive, that his kids haven't lost their dad."
At the same time, McIlroy was perfectly positioned to address the looming question as Woods begins yet another long, arduous recovery: Will golf, and the sports world in general, be prepared if Woods cannot summon yet another comeback?
"We're all sort of heading towards that day that Tiger wasn't going to be a part of the game," McIlroy said as he prepared for a
event this week in central Florida. "I'm not saying that that was soon."
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But McIlroy saw the wreckage of the SUV Woods was driving.
"It's inevitable that one day he won't be a part of it," McIlroy said, "and that's going to be just something that the game of golf and the tour is going to have to deal with and adapt to."
McIlroy holds out hope that Woods will return to the tour, yet he conceded: "It may be the end of seeing the genius at work with a club in his hand. But there's still a lot of other ways that he can affect the game in a great way."
McIlroy, who has assumed a role as an influential voice for players on the PGA Tour, may have been more forthright than any of his peers Wednesday, but on the subject of how much the tour will miss Woods, he was not alone.
On the grounds Wednesday at the Concession Golf Club, where the
will begin Thursday, the mood was somber as the players absorbed the meaning of what will be a lengthy absence for Woods.
"Very quiet on site today, everyone's head was down," said
, who is ranked fourth in the world. "It's kind of strange to share the same idol as everyone else out here, but we all do for a good reason. He is the reason a lot of us are playing golf."
Despite his travails - many self-generated - Woods has become a respected elder in the golf community at age 45, in part because it seemed clear that he was already living on borrowed time. In the packed galleries that followed him in recent seasons, a new phenomenon emerged: scores of young children accompanied by parents who were eager to show their offspring the great Tiger Woods.
Now, with new, debilitating injuries added to a list of infirmities that included a damaged spine that has required five surgeries and knee troubles that led to three operations, he will most certainly not be playing for quite a while - if ever again. That will leave a tremendous void in golf. Yes, various ailments have kept Woods away from the game for years. But it will be very different this time.
When Woods was briefly exiled from the game during the scandal spawned by his serial marital infidelities, he was 33 years old. He was still in his 30s when his back and knees began to betray him. Now, though, golf may be forced to contemplate turning the page from the Tiger era.
Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, knows how much Woods has meant to the game. In addition to attracting more commercial interest and television ratings to tournaments, Woods prompted people who didn't even know they liked golf to follow the sport worldwide.
"He's the inspiration; he's the standard," Monahan said Wednesday, standing alongside the practice putting green of a tournament that will award more than $10 million in prize money.
Jon Rahm, the No. 2 player in the world, said Woods was, to some extent, irreplaceable.
"He is that big," Rahm said. "There is a different atmosphere when Tiger's playing in a tournament than when he's not playing. Even if the top 20 players in the world are playing, if he's not there you can tell the difference. So, it's sad to see."
"I just hope he can get out of the hospital," Rahm added, "and he can still play with his kids and have a normal life."
McIlroy, who was 7 when Woods won his first major championship, recalled a lunch they had together in the spring of 2017, shortly after Woods' back fusion surgery. The meal was haunting to McIlroy because Woods had difficulty walking and standing.
"He won the
two years later," McIlroy said. "I don't think people, to this day, realize the struggle and the things he had to deal with to get to the point where he won at Augusta in 2019."
Nonetheless, on Wednesday, McIlroy had little interest in predicting Tiger Woods' future in the near term. He had other memories of his idol and close friend.
"I can't think of any greater comeback in sports," McIlroy said, "than the journey that he made from that lunch in 2017."