For the third tournament in a row, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods will meet in a heavyweight bout between the two most magnetic personalities in golf. No.1 and No. 2 in the world and playoff points will once again enjoy each other’s company when they tee it up in at least the first round of the FedEx Cup finale, the Tour Championship.
The marquee pairing of Baldy and The Intimidator -- best buds who will be making their fifth joint appearance in the past four events and their eighth this season -- have the final tee time, 1:55 p.m. ET, at East Lake on Thursday. In addition to the $10 million bonus that awaits the winner of the elite 30-player contest, bragging rights as the world’s best golfer are squarely on the line -- though McIlroy, with a major and back-to-back FedEx Cup wins under his white belt this season, currently owns the top spot in that category, despite Woods’ three wins in 2012.
McIlroy, with good reason, exuded nothing but confidence prior to the showdown.
“I know I'm playing well, hitting the ball well. Most aspects of my game are pretty sharp at the minute,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “It's just about going out there and letting it happen, and just not getting in your own way. Not really thinking about it too much. Just going out and playing golf, and that's what I've done.
“I know if I do that and stay in that process, my chances to win big golf tournaments like I have the last few weeks increase.”
Just don’t suggest -- as Greg Norman did earlier this week -- that the young lad from Northern Ireland puts the fear of the golf gods in his boyhood idol.
“How can I intimidate Tiger Woods?” he said. “The guy's got 75 or 70-whatever PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. “He's been the biggest thing ever in our sport. I mean, how can some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? It's just not possible.
“I don't know where [Norman] got that from,” McIlroy said, “but it's not true.”
Still, the two-time major champ who counts the guy who owns 14 of those prestigious titles as his new best friend, was not about to back down from the once-daunting former No. 1.
“I don't think intimidated is the right word,” McIlroy said about Woods’ powerful presence. “I am more just in awe of what he's done, of his accomplishments, of his achievements. But never intimidated.”
Woods, who nicknamed McIlroy “The Intimidator” after Norman made his comments, cracked wise in reaction to the Shark’s remarks.
“It’s got to be the hair,” he told reporters Wednesday, referring to his pal’s head full of curly tresses. Woods has joked about his own receding hairline, with McIlroy teasingly calling him out as “old” and bald” in a recent interview.
About their golf date on Thursday, McIlroy said he never tired of rolling the rock with Tiger.
“No, it's great. It's a great position to be in. Every time that we get paired up, I'm obviously very excited for it,” he said. “It's a great buzz. It's a great buzz around the group. So no, it's still a great thing for me.
“You'll have to ask him if he feels the same way. But for me it's very exciting, and I'm looking forward to that first tee on Thursday.”
Woods’ reaction to the possibility of the game’s one-two punch meeting in singles competition at next week’s Ryder Cup was a tad more low-key.
“That would be fun,” he said.
For the record, Woods has bettered McIlroy in three of their four toe-to-toe clashes, but the 23-year-old who grew up idolizing his 36-year-old playing partner has hoisted the hardware in the last two tourneys.
Woods, for his part, enters the big game in the best shape he’s been in for three years. He’s finished 11th or higher in five of his last six starts, including third place at the Deutsche Bank Championship and a share of fourth at the BMW Championship.
Woods has also won the FedEx Cup twice, in 2007 and 2009 (his most recent stint of his 13 starts in the Tour Championship), while this will be McIlroy’s maiden voyage in the tourney. A top-3 finish will seal the deal for Tiger, who could cash the big check by finishing sixth (you do the math; it’s way to complicated for us).
As for the others in the field, any player in the top five -- McIlroy, Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson, and Brandt Snedeker -- would win the FedEx Cup jackpot by claiming the Tour Championship. But all eyes will be on the guys bringing up the rear.