Rory McIlroy apparently poked the wrong bears on Wednesday at the Tour Championship.
McIlroy was asked if the playoff and season finale had a different feel to it since, for the first time since 1992, neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson qualified for the 30-player event. The world No. 1 offered an honest assessment of both players' seasons, noting Woods has been dealing with a back problem for most of the year, while Mickelson was largely inconsistent despite a valiant run at the PGA Championship that McIlroy ultimately won.
Then McIlroy confronted Woods' and Mickelson's career mortality.
"They're just getting older," he said. "Phil's 43 (actually, 44) or whatever he is and Tiger's nearly 40 (he'll turn 39 in December). So they're getting into the sort of last few holes of their career. And that's what happens. You get injured. Phil has to deal with an arthritic condition as well. So it obviously just gets harder as you get older. I'll be able to tell you in 20 years how it feels.”
McIlroy nailed it. Woods and Mickelson aren't getting any younger. Neither are any of us. Winning gets much tougher after the age of 40, with the notable modern exceptions of Vijay Singh (22 PGA Tour wins), Kenny Perry (11 wins) and Steve Stricker (nine). However, only one of those wins, Singh's at the '04 PGA Championship, was a major.
Woods hasn't won a major in six years and has been facing a back problem for over a year, still dealing with its effects now sidelined until December. Mickelson came down in the season following an incredibly unexpected victory in the Open Championship, getting him a step closer to the career grand slam. Getting to the Tour Championship is a nice bonus, but not their focus. At this point in their careers, four weeks matter each year. Everything else is optional.
Woods plays rarely when healthy; his schedule is more spotty when injured. Mickelson has vowed before to scale back his play and has no reason to grind out more than 18-20 starts each year.
McIlroy, a spry and observant 25, sees the wisdom in how Woods and Mickelson have valued the right mix of rest and preparation. Despite their best efforts, however, age has still caught up to them and the injury bug has caught them.
The week-to-week stage that is the PGA Tour will be more like an open mic night, cleared for anyone with a good bit to take the limelight. However, legacies, endorsements and histories are written on the game's four biggest stages and its handful of side stages. McIlroy has learned to appreciate those in the same way Woods and Mickelson always have and perhaps do more so now.