Tom Watson believes Rory McIlroy can take another step towards grabbing golf’s vacant World Heavyweight belt this week.
But while the five-time Open champion sees a lot of himself in the Holywood idol - especially the way he shed his choker’s tag after the Masters - he reckons only time will tell if the 22-year old can fill the considerable void left in the game by a damaged Tiger Woods.
Watson said: “There’s a vacant heavyweight title out there. Not a question. But it’s going to take time to see who fills the vacuum. You can speculate all you want but it’s going to take time. We can’t say who’s going to be the next superstar.
“Nobody has dominated the game the way Tiger did, ever. Never in the history of the professional game has it been dominated by anyone like Tiger Woods. Whether he gets it back to that point, who knows.
Can Rory fill the void? Watson has no idea just yet.
“As Jack [Nicklaus] says, Rory’s won just one Major Championship. Whether he’s going to be around for the next 20 years, you never speculate. We’ll check his career 10 years down the road.”
Watson, 61, was dubbed a serial choker early in his career but went on to win eight majors including five Opens, two Masters and a US Open.
And that’s why he was massively impressed by the way McIlroy bounced back from his Masters meltdown to break his major duck at Congressional.
He said: “I saw him after the Masters and said ‘what did you learn?’ And he said ‘I learned how to deal with it.’
“He learned what the pressure is like and that’s the most important thing. Having the lead at the Masters, we’ve some meltdowns happen there, and he responded beautifully.”
Asked if it was tough to go into a final round a big lead. Watson said: “Yeah, you haven’t been tested if you have a big lead. Human nature is to try to protect it. So I asked him what does it feel like and he said ‘I got off to a bad start when I pulled my shot into the first hole and I was treading uphill after that.
“When I hooked it at 10 the floodgates opened’. You go through it and you learn how to deal with it. I get nervous even watching these guys on TV. How do you deal with it. You look back on it and understand the feeling of it, so the next time you are put in that situation, you are looking for the positive.
“Did you hit that one shot positive. All it takes is that one shot. What solidified Rory’s win at the US Open was this third hole on Saturday. He hit a bad drive and had a choice to go for the green or not.
He said ‘I’m pitching it out on the fairway’. He hit it out there, took some wedge and made par and he mentioned that. Those nerves, all of a sudden, they’re negated, they lessen when something like that happens. I should know about that.
“I made a lot of good Watson pars when I should have made bogey or doubles. It does a world of good for your confidence when you do that. I think that one hole relieved the pressure on him and that’s what you’re looking for when you’re under pressure. The only way you can do it is by performance.
Watson was even more impressed by the way McIlroy took his Augusta agony on the chin by facing the media straight after the final round 80 that denied him a green jacket.
Watson said: “It shows the character he has. The understanding that the game can take as well as give. He understands that.”
Agreeing that it’s a trait remarkable in one so young, Watson said: “It is. It tears your guts out when you do something like that. It’s awfully hard to deal with all the responsibilities you have to deal with. Not a question about that.
“Would he rather not be talking to you people about how he just lost the Masters. He’d rather be chewing glass than doing that but he does it anyway and that’s remarkable. It shows you the type of character he has.”
The American great knows what pressure can do to a player and he sees McIlroy as a player who understands how to handle it now.
He said: “That’s the learning process of pressure. You’ve got to be thrown into the ocean without a life-preserver and you learn how to deal with it. Some people can do it and some people can’t.”
McIlroy, he firmly believes, now knows what it’s all about. Whether he continues to deliver is another question.