Rory McIlroy can reach No. 1 with a win this week.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Friday, March 02, 2012

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The next No. 1 appeared to be on the verge of falling asleep after shooting an unremarkable, four-under-par 66 in the first round of the Honda Classic at PGA National on Thursday.

“I'll go to the gym after I have some lunch here,” Rory McIlroy said softly, almost inaudibly, after hitting eight of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens in regulation, and making five birdies against one bogey. “I'll go to the gym, and then I'm just going to go home and chill out for the day. I might take a little bit of a nap and catch up on some sleep. I was up at 5:15 this morning.”

The old No. 1 doesn’t do naps. As Tiger Woods tells it, he doesn’t sleep much at all. He looked ready to commit journa-cide when he was asked a seemingly benign question about joining the Navy SEALS on Wednesday, and he wasn’t exactly pleased with the 34 putts he took in his first-round 71 Thursday.

“I hit a lot of pure putts today,” Woods said. “They rolled over a lot of edges. They just didn't quite go in. But I wasn't disappointed with my lines -- a couple bad reads out there. The grain kind of snagged it harder or less than I expected, but overall I hit the ball very good with my putts.”

McIlroy trails only Davis Love III (64) and is tied with seven others. McIlroy may or may not be No. 1 by Sunday, but it’s most likely just a matter of time before he takes the top spot.

Not that he seems too worked up about it. He showed little emotion after he rolled in a 13-foot birdie putt on the 194-yard, par-3 seventh hole to go to five under through his first 16 holes. He chatted with playing partner Keegan Bradley (67) as he walked to the eighth tee. They’re both Oakley guys -- Bradley has moved on to Tommy Hilfiger, but he is still paid to wear Oakley shoes. The company threw a party here Wednesday night. McIlroy attended; Bradley did not.

“It’s tough not to like Rory,” Bradley said. “He’s a good guy. We talk. He’s moving to Jupiter, so that’s going to be a good thing for both of us. He’s a member of the Bear’s Club now, so we’re going to be playing some golf. He’s a good guy to have around. He’s got a bunch of weeks off that I do, so we’ll be out there.”

The eighth tee at PGA National’s Champion Course is bookended by condominiums left and right, and a few people, including a large, shirtless man, ambled out to their screened porches to watch McIlroy, Bradley and FedEx Cup leader Kyle Stanley, who struggled to a 75. Cars zoomed by on Ryder Cup road, behind the tee. Rory tugged his tee shot a hair left, barely into the rough, but again didn’t give much reaction. The porch people went back inside.

“He doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of stress in his life right now,” said Steve Hale, Bradley’s caddie, who began to get to know McIlroy at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda last October. (Bradley won.) “He’s certainly playing well enough to be No. 1.”

McIlroy recently rented a home here, making this his U.S. base as he prepares for the Masters, and later this week his gallery is expected to include his tennis pro gal pal, Caroline Wozniacki. And he can putt -- golf’s big stress-reliever. For the boy wonder from Northern Ireland, life is a bowl of red numbers.

For the former No. 1, now ranked No. 21, life is all stress, all the time. Woods hit 10 of 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens in regulation Thursday, but as he said, “I didn’t get a whole lot out of my round.” That’s typical. He hasn’t won a Tour event, let alone a major, in more than two years. His ex-coach, Hank Haney, has written a book with Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz, a book whose revelations so far include the fact that Tiger geeks out on taking long runs in combat boots, and “almost” quit the Tour to follow his dad’s footsteps into the military. It’s struck a nerve; Woods looked closer to losing his cool Wednesday than he did at his 2010 Masters press conference, the one where he was freshly out of seclusion and stood there answering questions about bimbos and blood-doping.

No one really knows Woods, so it’s hard to say if he’s changed since then, but he maintains his right to be offended by the media. His icy no comment about the book brought to mind his other run-ins with the Fourth Estate. A reporter asked him about his swearing on the 18th tee at Pebble Beach and ended up in the dog house for 10 years. Another reporter asked Woods about being recruited by Bill Clinton to play in the Hope; Woods looked at her like she had two heads.

Woods always seemed to thrive on his antagonistic relationship with the press, but now he just looks miserable. And for those still hoping to draw him out, the feeling is probably mutual. It would be great for Woods if he was treated like any other 21st-ranked player in the world, but that’s not going to happen. Both sides could have done better in his awkward presser. Let’s leave it at that.

The next No. 1 doesn’t equate a press conference with a trial, doesn’t parse each question for traces of reportorial lassitude, nosiness or commercialism. McIlroy, whose day at PGA National was marred only by a three-putt bogey after his stray tee shot on No. 8, has a tender spot, a place to poke if you want to go that way. That would be the 2011 Masters, where he shot a final-round 80. And yet when a reporter referenced the photo of the 22-year-old standing dazed amid Augusta National’s cabins left of the 10th fairway, on the way to a triple-bogey 7, McIlroy laughed. He’s seen the photo; one of his friends sent it to him.

“They have known me my whole life,” he said. “They can still give me grief, and they can send me pictures of being lost in white houses at Augusta. It's fine.”

Yes, but at least they waited to apply the needle, right?

“No, no, they are brutal,” he said. “But I give them the same stuff, so it's fine. … That's what you need after something like that. You need someone to have a little bit of a sense of humor about it and make you laugh.”

Woods went straight to the practice green after his 71, again working on his stroke under the tutelage of Sean Foley, still searching for a way back, still leery of the next pure roll to betray him. No one was laughing. By then you had to figure McIlroy was back home, most likely asleep, dreaming of green jackets.

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