Can you picture him?

Can you picture Rory McIlroy’s face next to those of golf icons like Woods, Mickelson, Nicklaus and Palmer?

Can you picture Rory McIlroy as the face of golf?

Can you picture Rory McIlroy as a sports superstar after his instantly iconic double-breaking 33-foot birdie putt on 17 Saturday? The gallery blast from that tracer – the Rory Roar – caused Woods to step away from the approach shot on his bogey-bound final hole. What an appropriate moment – the former 21-year-old Masters prodigy stepping aside for the 21-year-old master-in-waiting. Tiger fans flocked from the 18th green toward Interstate 20 before McIlroy even got to the last fairway. Show’s over, folks.

But wait, the show is just starting.

McIlroy's only 21 – the same age Tiger Woods was when he made history at Augusta in 1997 – but age is not nearly as important a number as 65, 69, and 70, which are McIlroy’s scores this week. One more number like that on Sunday and golf has found its next Tiger.

Can you picture the young man from Holywood, Ireland going Hollywood? He already has, in the eyes of some. Kevin Abosch, who has photographed celebrities like Johnny Depp and Steven Spielberg, put McIlroy in his
"The Face Of Ireland" collection last month (above right).

In fact, Abosch put McIlroy right at the front on his website, before Pierce Brosnan and Sinead O’Connor.

Reached by phone Saturday evening in Dublin, Abosch says no matter how ready golf fans are to embrace this kid, he’s already got what it takes to be a worldwide celebrity.

“He’s got a lot of that thing you sense in stars,” Abosch says. “It is a combination of something natural and the energy others have reflected onto him.”

And that’s the most precious thing about McIlroy: he’s already got that rare blend of down-to-earth and among-the-stars. Nicklaus and Palmer both had that – the good-ol-boy charm and rip-your-throat-out focus. At his press conference Saturday, McIlroy joked about how it was “the beer talking” when fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell texted him “I love you” after his round. But then, when asked about being paired with Masters champion Angel Cabrera on Sunday, McIlroy said, “I don’t care who’s playing next to me.” He’s got a little bit of Tiger blood and a little bit of Phil chill. McIlroy’s comfortable enough to be accessible – Time Magazine named him one of the world’s top Twitter follows -- but he’s tough enough to seem above the pressure of the best golfers in the world breathing down his neck.

Just look back to the first time many Americans heard his name – last August when he was asked about the possibility of squaring off against Tiger Woods in the upcoming Ryder Cup. "I would love to face him," McIlroy said. "Unless his game rapidly improves in the next month or so, I think anyone in the European team would fancy his chances against him."

Tiger snapped back: “Me too.” And America chuckled knowingly.

But who’s laughing now? Here is McIlroy at Augusta, soaring while Woods sputters. Pretty much everyone outside of Steve Williams would fancy Rory’s chances against Tiger now.

And that’s not just for Sunday. That’s until further notice.

No offense to the Jason Days of the world, but the “passing of the torch to a new generation” canard is a lazy metaphor for “we have no idea who these children are so we lump them all together.”

McIlroy does not belong with those guys. Those guys have not hopped to the top of the leaderboard at Augusta and stayed there all Saturday, shooting 3-under on the back nine, using Moving Day to move further ahead. McIlroy has separated himself now, both in this tournament and in golf. The torch, for right now, belongs only to him.

Can he collapse? Of course he can. We’ve seen it so often. “I know,” he says, “how leads can dwindle away very quickly.” Every lead looks precarious on Sunday at Augusta. The final round of the Masters has crushed the old and young alike. The kid will be nervous, and he knows it.

But does McIlroy look like a choker? Just about every shot was dead solid perfect on Saturday. His facial expressions were immutable. The in-group chit-chat of Round 2 was gone. Even when McIlroy yanked his drive on 17, he winced ever so slightly and then rescued his round with a gorgeous 155-yard wedge from the trees. Then he drained the most beautiful putt of the Masters so far. Yes, McIlroy tweets about doing Jager bombs, but this isn’t some punk on a hot streak. He played in his first major at Augusta as a pro at age 19, and finished in a tie for 20th. Then he played in his second major, that year’s U.S. Open, and finished in a tie for 10th.

Can you picture Rory McIlroy in a green jacket?

It doesn’t matter.

Because he can.

Eric Adelson can be reached at adelson@yahoo-inc.com.

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