Start picking sides now. The 2012 U.S. Open promises to put the Bay Area in the middle of a rare generational showdown: Will you be a Rory partisan or a Tiger supporter next year at San Francisco's Olympic Club?
Join the McIlroy camp, and you get a youthful glow, bountiful panache and a golfer so gifted that he and his record-shattering Open win deserve to stand alone. And so they will ... for a few more syllables.
McIlroy's victory made him many things to a reeling sport, but above all, it shaped him into a proper foil for Tiger Woods. Even as an absentee, Woods underwent a transformation while the 22-year-old decimated Congressional Country Club over the weekend. Woods became the creaky, cranky old man.
He'd been limping in that direction for a while, but McIlroy's 16-under-par performance pushed him over the finish line. Woods' followers, accustomed to reveling in his dominance and fist pumps, now await a full revival tale. Currently, their fallen idol has to overcome more than merely balky joints and tendons, his on-course snit fits and the shame of using Bill Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi as his marital role models.
A transcendent golfer has stepped into Woods' path, creating a unique obstacle to his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors titles.
In the 15 years since Woods' arrival as a pro, no one has represented this sort of challenge. Here, at last, is a Sergio Garcia who can finish. Here is a David Duval with 10 times the creativity and emotional elasticity.
By itself, the runaway win at the Open didn't establish McIlroy's bona fides. Transitioning from his collapse at the Masters to an 8-stroke major victory did. That turnaround required something special, a fortitude that Woods didn't have to discover as a young player, because he owned the game almost immediately.
McIlroy's ascent has been remarkable, but as the ever-astute Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press points out, he has not matched Woods as a prodigy.
"This was his 10th major as a pro. Woods won in his professional debut at the majors," Ferguson wrote earlier this week. "... This was only his third career victory in 107 starts in European and PGA Tour events. Woods already had won 31 tournaments, including five majors, after his 107 starts in European and PGA Tour sanctioned tournaments."
Winning the British Open next month, just as Woods followed his staggering 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with a rout at St. Andrews, would move McIlroy a lot closer to the Tiger realm. But even then, golf -- the PGA Tour, in particular -- won't be able to count on him to revive flagging interest in the sport.
The TV ratings for Sunday's coverage of the Open dropped 26 percent from last year's final round, when Graeme McDowell won (and, more important, Woods entered Sunday in contention).
The 2010 tournament went deep into East Coast prime time, helping the numbers. But if McIlroy's dominance had been truly compelling to viewers, the time issue wouldn't have made that much difference.
Worse than that -- McIlroy's management has made it clear that he will stick with the European Tour. PGA tournaments will continue offering a low-protein, no-carb, flavor-free diet of Bubba Watson, Anthony Kim, et al. They're appealing to serious golf fans, but they're also incapable of stringing together great performances and distracting the casual fan from baseball, weekend jogs or jaunts to the mall.
McIlroy's inaccessibility to American audiences greatly will enhance the next year's Open. The organizers have to hope that he simply remains consistent and Woods' body heals.
Tiger will be 36 next year. He has not won an Open since his riveting 2008 showdown at Torrey Pines with Rocco Mediate, 13 years his senior and squeezing some phenomenal golf in between periods of debilitating back pain.
Woods is 13 years older than McIlroy. He is trying to overcome debilitating knee pain, part of the legacy of stubbornly playing those five rounds at Torrey on a crumbling leg. By all rights, the spectacle of that playoff with Mediate should not be duplicated.
The Olympic Club still has a chance to experience its sequel, assuming the Lake Course doesn't follow an old pattern and toss the whole plot aside. It tends to upend giants and elevate anonymities, such as Jack Fleck in 1955 and Scott Simpson in 1987. They overtook Ben Hogan and Tom Watson to win. But 2012 should be a year like few others in golf, and the prime spot on the calendar belongs to the Bay Area.