Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy set up their first head-to-head PGA Tour duel with a dramatic, if tongue-in-cheek, smackdown on Wednesday. The two -- who are sharing center stage with Zach Johnson in the first two rounds of The Barclays this week -- kicked off the 2012 FedEx Cup playoffs at Bethpage Black by staging an entertaining stare-down during back-to-back media sessions.
The fun began during Wednesday’s pressers. Each player noted how much he enjoyed walking the fairways with the other and engaged in some good old-fashioned trash talk.
As Woods stood at the back of the room, McIlroy laughingly said he would “love to go out first [in next month’s Ryder Cup tilt] and kick [Tiger’s] ass,” if the two were to meet in a singles match at Medinah.
Up next, Woods responded in kind when a scribe asked if he were ready to have Rory kick his ass at the Ryder Cup.
“At what?” asked Woods, with a small smile. “At Medinah? No.”
Kidding aside, McIlroy, who had never played with Woods in an official PGA Tour event but had faced him for a round in the 2010 Chevron World Championship and for three days at January’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, averred that playing with the legend inspired him to bring his “A” game.
"It really focuses you from the get-go, a pairing like that," he said. "I feel every time I've played with Tiger, he's sort of brought the best out of me."
It’s not a stretch to see how McIlroy -- who notched both the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship in Tiger-esque style by lapping each field by eight strokes -- might evoke memories of a younger Woods. At his dominating best, Woods dusted his closest opponent by 12 shots at the 1997 Masters and bludgeoned the runners-up by 15 at the 2000 U.S. Open.
But it seemed a tad premature when, after McIlroy’s first major triumph, for fellow players -- Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington, in particular -- to declare that McIlroy would be the one to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. While not quite ready to concede his place in history to a golfer 13 years his junior, the 36-year-old Woods could have been describing what it took him to get to 14 majors and 73 tour wins when he described McIlroy’s prowess.
"Rory has that ability once he gets going, he just makes birdie after birdie after birdie," said Woods. "Not afraid to keep trying to push it, to try to shoot lower scores."
For his part, McIlroy has dialed back the cocky attitude after challenging a struggling Woods before the 2010 Ryder Cup, only to have the U.S. win by a point, with Tiger going 3-1-0. He has also sought to play down any type of one-on-one contest between the two.
"I've always said, the players don't build up rivalries themselves; people from the outside build up the rivalries," McIlroy said. "I just want to play good golf."
Notah Begay would probably approve of McIlroy’s public sentiments, since he believed the kid was nowhere near usurping the “the next Tiger Woods" title.
“There’s nothing to say that Rory can’t [surpass Woods’ numbers], but 12 major championships just to tie Tiger is a hell of a long way away,” Begay, a tour pro as well as Woods’ college teammate, told SBNation by phone on Wednesday. “He’s got a lot of ground to cover [beyond being] just the youngest to have won two majors. That will be a footnote in terms of golf history.
“And certainly don’t think Tiger’s done winning major championships,” added Begay, who will welcome Woods and a star-studded cast of PGA and LPGA stars to his annual charity golf outing next week.
Age, lack of recent success, and the loss of his former dominance may make it more difficult for Woods to win than in the past, but don’t count him out, Begay cautioned.
“Tiger certainly has a few [majors] left in him,” said Begay.
Meanwhile, with threesomes starting out this week based on their FedEx Cup standings, leading points-getter Woods, who was No. 3 in the world, takes on golf’s No. 1, who, coincidentally, ranks third in playoff points. Though the showdown should make for great TV on Friday (Thursday’s 8:16 a.m. ET tee time was too early to make it to the afternoon broadcast), Begay suggested the two combatants were likely less invested in the matchup than the media and the fans.
“I don’t know that either one is going to care that much [about besting the other],” said Begay. “It’s just a regular event. If it were the PGA Championship, or the Players Championship, or even the beginning of the year leading up to the Masters, I think there would be a lot more interest.”
Indeed, no matter how much the boys at tour headquarters try to boost the so-called playoffs, Begay confirmed that players viewed the series of four games that follows the final major of the season as a money grab and table-setter for the upcoming Ryder Cup. But that did not mean that the best golfers in the world were not going to try to win and put on a show for the paying customers.
“Both guys are coming off good seasons,” Begay said, noting McIlroy’s second major win earlier this month and Woods’ three tour victories this season. “The competitive nature in both players is going to encourage them to play their best golf so it should be very entertaining.”
In the first round of the Battle of the Titans, it was Tiger 1, Rory 0, as Woods coasted to a nearly flawless 3-under 68 in Thursday’s opening match at Bethpage. With five birdies and three bogeys on his card, McIlroy will head into Friday a shot behind his fabled playing partner. They both trailed Harrington, the early leader in the clubhouse at 7-under.