FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The moment was lost on exactly no one as Rory McIlroy, having finished his press conference at the Barclays at Bethpage Black on Wednesday, slapped hands with Tiger Woods, who was just taking the podium.
“Sorry for keeping you waiting,” said McIlroy, ever the polite successor to the throne, the 23-year-old architect of the least hostile takeover in sports history.
Woods took his spot at the microphone and proceeded to field no fewer than six questions about McIlroy. It’s a good thing they like each other.
There are many stories in play at the Black this week, which marks the start of the four-tournament, mega-bucks FedEx Cup playoffs. Players are still scrambling to catch the attention of Ryder Cup captains Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal. But the Woods-McIlroy pairing is the story that promises to most energize the New York crowd. They will go off the 10th tee at 8:16 a.m. Thursday, rendering Zach Johnson, the third member of their group, all but invisible.
“It really focuses you from the get-go, a pairing like that,” McIlroy said.
Tiger and Rory. Rory and Tiger. We suspected the game was coming to this when McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots, but then he went strangely dormant just as Woods started winning again on Tour. Alas, McIlroy wasn’t dormant for long. Breaking a winless stretch that went back to the Honda Classic in March, he won the PGA Championship two weeks ago at Kiawah, also by eight shots, for his second major title. All along we’d thought it would be Woods who broke Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 career major titles, but with Woods, 36, stuck on 14 and Rory, 23, already at two, the forecast has gotten more complicated.
“The thing that gets me about Rory is he’s completely different from the quote, unquote superstar players in one key way,” says Jim (Bones) Mackay, Phil Mickelson’s longtime caddie. “I’ve never seen anyone able to play such big events, and take on such big moments, in such a relaxed state of mind. Tiger and Phil will get very intense, but Rory goes the other way, so that Thursday at a major becomes like playing a $5 Nassau on Tuesday at his club. His ability to get there — he’s going to win so many tournaments because of that, and I think to some extent it’s why he was able to get over what happened at the Masters so quickly.”
McIlroy collapsed with a final-round 80 at the 2011 Masters, but he learned quickly. He dominated in his next major start, at the U.S. Open at Congressional, and has now won two of the last seven majors. On the subject of closing out big tournaments, he said Wednesday, “I feel like I’m most of the way there on that.”
The relaxed demeanor shows up in McIlroy’s inimitable, jaunty strut, and his ubiquitous photo ops with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. They’re all over the Internet, where you can also see Rory climb out of the stands, grab a racquet and hit a tennis ball during Wozniacki’s exhibition match against Maria Sharapova, in March. Earlier this week, McIlroy, in Connecticut to watch Wozniacki play in the New Haven Open, drove a tennis ball through a tunnel at the Yale Bowl.
Until he won at Kiawah two weeks ago, McIlroy was taking criticism for his laid-back attitude. Was he practicing hard enough? Did he really want it?
“Freddy Couples seemed to have that sort of [casual, care-free] look,” said Tim Clark, who played with McIlroy when the young Irishman fired a 9-under 63 in the first round of the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews. “But what you see on the outside is not necessarily what’s happening on the inside. We can’t really know that. I think we all expect him to win the Grand Slam — maybe not all four majors in the same year, but he’s certainly got that type of talent.”
McIlroy is missing only a Masters and a British Open, and he’s flirted with winning both. He leads the World Ranking, followed by Luke Donald, followed by Woods, who said he always looks forward to playing with the boy king.
“I got a chance this year to play with him at Abu Dhabi in a practice round, and we really hit it off,” said Woods, who faded on the weekend to tie for 11th place at the PGA and took last week off to be with his children. “He’s a great kid and it’s great to be around him. What an amazing talent he really is. I just hope that everyone just lets him grow and develop as a player, because it’s going to be fun to see over the next 20 years how this kid’s career is going to pan out.”
Plenty of people are also curious about how Woods’s remaining years will pan out. He won the 2002 U.S. Open here at Bethpage Black, and more than one contestant this week has called the course, with its long rough, U.S. Open-like.
Who’s better between Rory and Tiger? Although the numbers say McIlroy is, he declined to pronounce himself the definitive No. 1. Only Woods has won three times on Tour this year. He has those 14 majors. And Woods beat McIlroy 66-70 the only time they’ve been 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, not paired together for the final round, McIlroy (69) passed Woods (72). Neither man won. That honor went to the relatively unheralded Robert Rock.
“I feel every time I’ve played with Tiger, he’s sort of brought the best out of me,” McIlroy said. “I really feel focused and obviously want to play well.”
“It’s going to be fun for both of us,” Woods said.
The greatest player of his era playing against possibly the greatest player of the next era, on a classic, A.W. Tillinghast layout, in front of throngs of rowdy New Yorkers? Heck, that’s going to be fun for all of us.