Say this for Tiger Woods: Even in the face of new boy king Rory McIlroy, Woods isn't going away quietly, if he's going away at all.
Paired with McIlroy on Friday for the fourth time in the last three weeks, Woods again refused to lose, matching golf's new No. 1 shot for shot over the first two days of the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick. Woods shot a 5-under-par 67, matching McIlroy (68) at 12 under for the tournament, a shot behind leader Vijay Singh (66).
Ryan Moore also was at 12 under after his second straight 66.
Lee Westwood (65) and Bo Van Pelt (69) were at 11 under, two behind the ageless Singh, who said after his round he will not play the Champions Tour, not even for the 50-and-over majors, when he turns 50 in February.
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Players went out early to beat advancing thunderstorms, and for the second straight day they were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls due to wet and muddy conditions at Crooked Stick. The course, which hasn't hosted a PGA Tour event since the 1991 PGA Championship won by John Daly, has played so easy that only nine of the 70 players are over par halfway through the tournament.
"I don't think Pete Dye is going to be happy about this," Woods said of the famous course architect who designed Crooked Stick. It was a measure of how easy the course played that neither Woods nor McIlroy sounded especially pleased with his round Friday.
Woods: "I've got to get this stubborn old body and mind to cooperate here."
McIlroy: "I just need to try and find a little more consistency. It wasn't that bad, but just a couple of missed tee shots and a couple of missed iron shots."
Despite their lukewarm assessments of their play, McIlroy and Woods may be headed for a $10 million showdown for the FedEx Cup grand prize at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Sept. 20-23. They are projected to be first and second on the FEC points list, respectively, after the BMW. Woods outplayed McIlroy when they were paired together in the first two rounds of the Barclays at New York's Bethpage Black two weeks ago. (Alas, playing in separate groups, McIlroy passed a struggling Woods on the weekend.)
On Friday, Woods didn't make a bogey, but he still hoped to hit a few balls on the range after his round if the thunderstorms held off.
"I fought hard," he said after matching McIlroy with a closing birdie on the par-4 18th hole. "I didn't have much today. Swing wasn't quite there, and I was just grinding along here and just trying to get to double digits under par."
Many players said Crooked Stick, with its perfect greens and soft fairways – and with lift-clean-place rules in effect – couldn't have played easier.
"About to shred this course!!!!" Dustin Johnson tweeted before his round.
Johnson did, firing a 67 to get to 9 under, just four off the lead, along with defending FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas (64), Padraig Harrington (65) and Graeme McDowell (67).
Phil Mickelson (67), Adam Scott (68) and Zach Johnson (69) are among a large group at 8 under, five off the lead.
"Although I shot five under, and I'm pleased with the round and so forth," Mickelson said, "I left probably five, six, seven shots on the greens that could have gone."
Crooked Stick's flood of red numbers will be forgotten long before its cast of characters at the top. In McIlroy, 23, and Woods, 36, the PGA Tour and golf fans everywhere are getting exactly what they want most heading into the Tour Championship, the fourth and final leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs at East Lake outside Atlanta. That's where the reigning No. 1 and the former No. 1 could end up battling for golf's most audacious prize, the $10 million FEC bonus.
Their games are matching up a lot more evenly than many might have anticipated as recently as the start of this year. They are comparable off the tee, but McIlroy has putted better, especially at the majors. Woods still has the edge in experience, and perhaps – one can only guess – composure under pressure.
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Woods beat McIlroy 66-70 the first time they were paired together on Tour, in the second round of the unofficial Chevron World Challenge in 2010. They played together in the first two rounds at the Abu Dhabi HSBC, a Euro Tour event, in late January, and tied. Woods prevailed 66-68 when they played together again in round three, but, separated for the final round, McIlroy (69) passed Woods (72).
Neither man won. That honor went to Robert Rock.
Woods birdied four of his last eight holes at Crooked Stick on Friday, while McIlroy had a more turbulent round: six birdies, an eagle on the short, par-5 ninth hole, and four bogeys. They'll need to make many more birdies to have a chance, as Crooked Stick may be even softer on the weekend after Friday's rain.
"You shoot a couple of decent rounds," McIlroy said, "you're just going to get lapped."