THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A little more than three months ago, Tiger Woods was on his way back to the top of golf with only time in his way.
He already had won three times on the PGA Tour, moving past Jack Nicklaus in career victories. He still had not won a major, though there were indications he was closing in. He had a share of the 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open before throwing away his chances with a sloppy weekend. He was in the second-to-last group going into the final round of the British Open and tied for third. And when he showed up at the PGA Championship on Saturday morning, he again was tied for the lead halfway through the final major.
Rory McIlroy? He had reached No. 1 on three occasions, never longer than three weeks at a time. He only had one win, and that was in March at the Honda Classic.
That now seems so long ago.
The rest of the weekend at Kiawah Island belonged to McIlroy.
So did the rest of the year. And maybe the future.
McIlroy finished off a long, wild and exhilarating season last week when he birdied the last five holes to win the European Tour's final event in Dubai and head home with all the spoils.
He won five times this year, the most of anyone around the world. He captured the money titles on the European Tour and PGA Tour. He won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour. He won the PGA of America player of the year and is a lock to win every other honor that measures the best in golf.
The questions going into 2013 should sound familiar.
It's not whether he will in a major, but how many? I's not about who's No. 1, but how much more can he separated himself from everyone else?
That's what used to be asked about Woods. Now those questions are directed toward McIlroy.
"I think he'll be around for a long time," Luke Donald said.
Suddenly, a lot more than just time is standing in the way of Woods getting back to the top. There's this 23-year-old from Northern Ireland who looks as if he's just getting warmed up.
Is he the next Tiger? Not yet. Maybe not ever. McIlroy had a banner year by winning five times around the world, including a major. That used to be a normal season for Woods. McIlroy missed five cuts this year. It took Woods 13 years on the PGA Tour before he missed his fifth cut.
McIlroy has all the tools of greatness, and a refreshing outlook. One of the understated qualities about Woods is that for the richest guy in golf, he worked as if he didn't have two nickels to rub together. McIlroy is coming off an amazing season and only wants to get better.
"I had a few goals starting off this year," he said in Dubai. "Obviously, I wanted to win a major. I think I wanted to win four times around the world — five. The Race to Dubai — I won. I guess getting to world No. 1, which I achieved earlier in the year. But I guess every goal that I set for myself at the start of 2012, I've achieved this year. So it doesn't really get much better than that."
"I guess the same," McIlroy said. "To be focused on the majors, try to win more of those. I've won one in '11, one in '12. It would be nice to keep that run going next year."
If he were to win a major next year, McIlroy would join Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the only players since 1960 to win a major championship in three successive years.
"I feel like I can improve in different areas of the game still," McIlroy said. "I guess that's the challenge and the fun of practice is trying to get better all the time."
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was learning to win without his best stuff, another trait that defines Woods' greatness. McIlroy at least was savvy enough not to say that he won with his "C'' game. Woods stopped grading himself after catching grief for saying that in Dallas in 1997.
It's tempting to compare McIlroy with Woods because of their talent, and because Woods is the standard for this generation, and perhaps many more to come.
That would make 2013 a chance for McIlroy to pull away from his peers, as Woods once did.
The 1999 season was similar to this year when it came to a potential rivalry. Going into the final major of that season, Woods was No. 2 in the world behind David Duval. Woods had won three times that year, second in tour victories to Duval. Woods wound up winning the PGA Championship at Medinah, and then he closed out the season by winning four straight tournaments — Firestone, Disney, the Tour Championship and a World Golf Championship in Spain.
Duval was a forgotten figure by the end of the season.
Woods found another gear — closer to warp speed — in 2000 by winning 10 times around the world, including three straight majors. There hasn't been another season like that since then, and there might not be. But imagine how McIlroy will be looked upon if he were to win multiple majors next year. If he wins both money titles again. If he builds such a gap at No. 1 in the world ranking that players can only hope he decides to change his swing.
Perhaps the more intriguing aspect is how Woods responds.
Woods can measure progress this year not only by three wins, but by playing his biggest schedule since 2009. The World Challenge, which he has won five times as the tournament host, is his 24th week of competition (including the Ryder Cup and the exhibition in Turkey).
And as much as Woods likes McIlroy as a person — who doesn't? — and talks about the importance of at least being in the conversation when it comes to the best in golf, he has never faced a challenge like this. Vijay Singh had a better season than McIlroy in 2004 when the Fijian won nine times, but he was in his early 40s then.
"I think anything other guys do motivates Tiger," Steve Stricker said. "He's so competitive, and he's been in that position over the years where he's been No. 1 in the world, and him not being there has surely got to be motivation for him."