UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. - Over the past year, it has become painfully obvious the golf world belongs to No. 1 Rory McIlroy and his under-30 contemporaries, and Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are just struggling to survive in it. The last four majors have been won by players in their 20s, including the PGA and British Open by McIlroy, Masters by Jordan Spieth and last year's U.S. Open by Martin Kaymer, who turned 30 in December.
Mickelson pulled off a stunner when he won the British Open in 2013, but he hasn't won since. And Woods now is seven years removed from the last of his 14 major titles, the 2008 U.S. Open.
Just as LeBron James has ascended to the throne once held in the NBA by Michael Jordan, so, too, has four-time major champion McIlroy begun prompting comparisons to the young Woods. When McIlroy was asked Tuesday if he could relate to James' recent declaration of himself as the "best player in the world," he embraced the comparison.
"I think when LeBron talks about that, that's not confidence, that's a fact when you look at how he's carried his team in these Finals," McIlroy said. "If you look at the numbers, you can really see he is the best player in the world.
"I feel the same way when I look at the world rankings and I see my name at the top. If you look at the last four or five years, I've won more majors than anyone in that time period. So do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes. And obviously, I want to go out every week and try to back that up."
While Woods and Mickelson still hold the public's fascination, they no longer scare the field. When defending champion Kaymer, who is paired with McIlroy for the first two rounds, was asked to list his favorites this week at Chambers Bay, he said: "Rory for sure. Jason Day has a very good chance . . . Jordan will be interesting to see how he deals with all the expectations now."
Kaymer said Mickelson "is on the back nine of his career" but gave him a chance because of his aggressive play, creativity and will to win. He made no mention of the faded Woods.
"It's a fact these days the young guys win and compete more than the guys in their late 30s or 40s," Kaymer said. "What Rory has done the last three or four years is very special."
Kaymer also mentioned Rickie Fowler as a contender after "how brave he played" to come from behind to win The Players Championship last month. Fowler had four top-five finishes in the majors last year without winning, but he's ready to challenge McIlroy now.
"We look at him as the best player in the world right now," Fowler said. "He's proven that. He did play well in the majors last year. I got him on aggregate, but he's holding two trophies, so he got me there. Yeah, he's the guy out front, but we're ready to battle and go toe to toe."
That's the real challenge McIlroy faces. It's no longer about beating Woods and Mickelson. It's about figuring out how to stay on top as long as Woods did, and how to manage his life better off the course.
"The biggest thing is motivation," McIlroy said. "It's just trying to get better and set goals for yourself and try to accomplish that. Off the course, you have to be stable, be happy, keep it simple. If you want longevity in golf, you're going back to the day of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player. They had very stable personal lives. I think that's a big key to having a long and successful career."
Sounds like a plan.