ATLANTA – It’s been called a friendly rivalry and a bro-mance, but the uncharacteristically chummy relationship between Tiger Woods and his biggest competitive threat, Rory McIlroy, might have already jumped the shark this week.
The tone certainly changed when the Shark himself, Greg Norman, injected the notion that the former world No. 1 is “intimidated” by the new No. 1.
“It’s got to be the hair,” Woods said in his most genial and expansive response Wednesday regarding his new golf pal’s suggested intimidation factor.
McIlroy was more amused by the latest theory as he and Woods prepare to square off today as the top two points leaders in the Tour Championship at East Lake with $10 million at stake.
“He’s got a new nickname for me, actually,” the affable Northern Irishman said of Woods. “He calls me ‘The Intimidator.’ He’s obviously seen (Norman’s remarks), too.”
McIlroy laughed at the absurdity of Norman’s proclamation.
“How can I intimidate Tiger Woods?” he said. “I mean, the guy’s got 75 or 70‑whatever PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. I mean, he’s been the biggest thing ever in our sport. How could some little 23‑year‑old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him. It’s just not possible. I don’t know where he got that from, but it’s not true.”
On this point Woods certainly agrees. There’s not another golfer in the world who can “intimidate” the second-most prolific major winner and tournament champion in history. Not unless golf changes into a contact sport.
“No one is the size of Ray Lewis who is going to hit me coming over the middle, so this is a different kind of sport,” Woods said. “We go out there and we play our own game and see where it falls at the end of the day. As I said, it’s not like you go over the middle and some guy is 255 pounds and going to take your block off. ... Some individual sports, such as tennis, you actually can do that physically, because you’re playing against somebody. Here no one is affecting any shots.”
Woods and McIlroy have been the dominant story line of the most intriguing series for the PGA Tour’s “playoff” events. Today will mark the fifth time that the two have been paired together on the PGA Tour – all of them in the past four weeks since McIlroy sailed past Woods on the weekend of the PGA Championship.
McIlroy’s back-to-back wins in Boston and Crooked Stick on the heels of his major triumph at Kiawah have eclipsed Woods and all but clinched PGA Tour player of the year regardless of who wins this week.
For all the smiles and laughs and jokes about McIlroy’s height and Woods’ hairline, the recent flipped stature and armchair analysis seems to have soured the affection from at least one side of the relationship. When a heart breaks, it don’t break even.
Woods gave short, clipped remarks Wednesday any time the young McIlroy specifically came up.
What is his take on all of the outside analysis and dissection of his latest peer relationship?
“I really don’t care,” Woods said.
Anybody come closer to getting the gist of it than Norman?
“I really don’t care,” he said again.
Would you like to be matched against McIlroy on Sunday of the Ryder Cup?
“That would be fun,” he said.
Put that with the two cracks about Rory’s hair and you get the idea that Woods is done talking about it.
For good reason. McIlroy has owned Woods this season head-to-head, winning all four of his events with Woods in relative close proximity. Only one of Woods’ three wins – the Memorial – came with McIlroy in the field.
“It is a great feeling to be able to hold off the best players in the world,” McIlroy said. “He came charging on me at the Honda this year, and I was able to hang on and win there.
If Woods is getting a little weary of the new kid beating him, McIlroy isn’t tired of seeing Woods on the first tee.
Counting three rounds they played together to start 2012 in Abu Dhabi, golf’s newest marquee rivalry has been a frequent treat for the fans around the world.
“Every time that we get paired up, I’m obviously very excited for it,” McIlroy said. “It’s a great buzz. It’s a great buzz around the group. So, no, it’s still a great thing for me. You’ll have to ask him if he feels the same way. But for me it’s very exciting, and I’m looking forward to that first tee on Thursday.”
Woods still says it would be fun, but for some reason it doesn’t seem as heartfelt as it did before the kid started showing Tiger what it’s like to play second fiddle to No. 1.