Rory McIlroy’s robust game and his hold on the No. 1 spot in golf will make Tiger Woods better, says an interested observer who should know a little something about all-time sports rivalries.
“It would definitely be helpful,” Jack Nicklaus said Friday about the growing tug-of-war between the 14-time major champion and the player many observers believe to be his successor. “Tiger probably needs somebody to pop him a few times so he gets a chance to go pop it back.”
Nicklaus, who battled for years inside the ropes and formed a fast friendship with Arnold Palmer -- much like the bond that has emerged between Tiger and Rory -- told reporters gathered for this weekend’s Father/Son Challenge that Woods could use the motivation from his new friend to boost his own game.
For sure, Woods delighted in firing a final-round 62 at this year’s Honda Classic, though it wasn’t enough to block McIlroy from the winner’s circle.
“It's kind of good for you to get drummed a couple times, and then all of a sudden you say, ‘I'm not getting drummed anymore, I'm going to go drum that guy back,’” said Nicklaus. “That's sort of what rivalries are all about. They always want to win and the competition is fierce, so that's good.”
Nicklaus lunched on Thursday at his Bear’s Club with McIlroy, who’s a member. He took the opportunity to invite this year’s PGA and European Tour money titles winner and his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, to a doubles match on his home court.
The Golden Bear also advised the 23-year-old superstar from Northern Ireland to monitor his weight training so that he did not “lift” himself out of his golf game.
“He's gotten a lot bigger,” Nicklaus said about McIlroy, who appeared on the PGA Tour at the start of 2012 far more ripped than he had been the year before. “His shoulders have gotten very big and his arms have gotten big. He said he's really been working out a lot. He said he's really playing well and really looking forward to playing again next year.”
If 2013 is anything like this year, Woods will have all he can handle from the 2012 Player of the Year, who, despite a shaky mid-season, secured his position atop the world rankings with four tour wins that included his second major championship. Woods enjoyed success as well, with three wins on tour, but he has not won a major since 2008.
As McIlroy -- who won back-to-back FedEx Cup events in September as well as the Euro Tour’s season-ender in Dubai -- continues to solidify his own game, his progress could actually help Woods whittle away at Nicklaus’ mark of 18 majors.
“When you really don't have a pushing competitor, or a force that's pushing you ‑‑ his force pushing him has always been my record,” Nicklaus said. “It may get stale during a period of time...maybe somebody else gives you a kick and boost to go.
“Tiger certainly hasn't lost his talent, certainly hasn't lost his desire. But he's got a few more guys out there now that can finish coming down the stretch than he had five, six years ago.”
Nicklaus and son Gary will play Saturday with Palmer and his grandson, Will Wears, in the Father/Son Challenge at Florida’s Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Orlando -- a foreshadowing, perhaps, of years to come when today’s Arnie and Jack tee it up in an exhibition with their own progeny?
Woods and McIlroy are slated to renew their on-course encounters in January at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.