Tiger Woods may credit swing coach Sean Foley with helping him regain his touch on the course, but it sure appears as if a blossoming rivalry with 23-year-old Rory McIlroy has a lot to do with rejuvenating the old man’s love for the game.
There was Woods two weeks ago, partaking in a bit of badinage with his young opponent, who, gazing at the 14-time major champ standing in the back of the room, joked that he would love to “kick his ass” in the upcoming 2012 Ryder Cup. Woods replied with his own smirky retort and then went out and played some of his best golf in years when the two chums strolled side by side at the The Barclays, chattering away like a couple of school kids.
Rising to the occasion, Woods bested McIlroy on Thursday and Friday at Bethpage Black, although he finished the week two shots back of his young protege.
A much-anticipated Tiger-Rory matchup never materialized at last week’s Deutsche Bank Championship, and though Woods finished two shots back of McIlroy's winning 20-under, he fired four rounds in the 60s for the first time since December. When the duo reunited for the opening two rounds of the BMW Championship, another laugh-fest ensued, as the world’s Nos. 1 and 3 went shot-for-shot on Thursday at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., after greeting each other like long-lost brothers in their pre-tourney pressers.
And then, after McIlroy and Woods combined for 16 birdies and an eagle to fire 8-under 64 and 7-under 65, respectively, the two flashed toothy grins and gave each other hearty congratulatory handshakes. This, after pro-forma tips of the cap with this week’s third wheel, Nick Watney.
Then the accolades began.
“Rory played beautifully today,” Woods said glowingly about his playing parter as the two shared a post-round interview with Golf Channel -- something one was not likely to see when Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Sergio Garcia, et. al., were Tiger’s primary competitors. “Every single facet of the game was working and it all looked good.”
Indeed, it all looked good for both players. Woods birdied five of his first seven holes and posted an opening-nine 32. He put an exclamation point on his four birdies on the back by drilling a 30-foot birdie putt from off the green on the par-5 ninth that elicited a smile from the golfer with the second-most wins in history.
Not to be outdone, McIlroy canned a 5-footer for a birdie of his own at the last and ended the day tied for the lead with Webb Simpson and Bo Van Pelt.
As for a rivalry that has many in the golf world comparing the sport's two biggest names to Magic and Larry, Federer and Nadal, Boston and New York, the two contenders continued to downplay such a notion.
“We’re just going to go out there and try and shoot the best score possible; that’s my mindset,” McIlroy said. “Of course, every week that you might beat Tiger, you’re probably going to be at the top of the leaderboard, but I’m not going out there with the aim to beat Tiger or [anyone] else; I’m just there to try and shoot the best number possible.”
Right back atcha, replied a humble Woods, whose game has been on an upswing since adding a player who obviously gets his competitive juices flowing to his regular threesome.
“It’s a lot of fun [playing with McIlroy]. This is the next generation of guys coming up,” said Woods, sounding like someone about to exit stage left rather than a guy playing like an ace everyone used to know as No. 1. “He hits it great, putts it great and, on top of that, [is] just a really nice kid.”
Tune in Friday at 9:39 a.m. local time for Day 2 of the latest edition of Rory & Tiger’s Excellent Adventure.