Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are taking their Nike-imagined rivalry to the course when the poster boys for the golf equipment giant go head-to-head in the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship starting on Thursday.
Renewing a burgeoning competition that began last season, the world No. 1 and No. 2 hoped to raise their encounters to a new level by facing each other on Sunday. While knocking it around together in the same threesome (along with European Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer) to open the 2013 season will make for enjoyable entertainment, both agreed they needed to square off with a tourney on the line before terming their on-course bond a real rivalry.
''It would be similar to saying that I had a rivalry with Phil [Mickelson] two years into my career. That wasn't the case. It takes time,'' Woods told reporters Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. ''Over the course of my career, I've gone head-to-head against Ernie [Els] and Vijay [Singh] the most and that has happened over 17 years. But it takes time.”
Though Woods and McIlroy played together several times in 2012, they never duked it out in a Sunday finale. In a group ahead of McIlroy, Woods gave his young friend something to think about when he finished with a birdie, eagle and a career-low final-round 62 at last year’s Honda Classic.
“Certainly we've done it once at Honda,” Woods said. “But we really haven't had the amount of matches or head-to-head duels with Phil and Vijay and Ernie. But then again, it's only been a few years. Let's give it time and see how it pans out.''
McIlroy echoed the sentiments of his boyhood idol.
''I don't know if you can call it a rivalry yet because we haven't battled each other down the stretch of a major,'' McIlroy said. ''It's not like we have been playing in the final group of a tournament and we are battling each other. Hopefully at some point that can happen this year and it would be great to be part of that.''
In the meantime, Woods will hit the links for the first time as No. 2 on the Nike Golf marquee. With McIlroy officially coming out Monday as the newest member of the Swoosh Squad, it was all Rory, all the time, during Tuesday’s press conferences.
Woods fielded 20 questions, 15 of which pertained to his new teammate, according to Alistair Tait. McIlroy, on the other hand, talked Tiger in six of his 32 queries.
In the short term, Woods seemed comfortable with playing both sidekick and mentor to his heir apparent -- adding his marketing heft to Monday’s Rory-palooza, co-starring with McIlroy in an amusing Nike ad, and offering his young pal advise on how to deal with new-found fame and fortune.
''This past summer [McIlroy] had a little bit of a spell there where he didn't play well. Went back to focusing and practicing, and lo and behold, he had a huge end of the summer,'' said Woods, who conceded he bumped up against similar issues as a young pro. ''That's just something that we've all had to go through, we've all learned. It's tough sometimes, it really is.
“When you have success,” Woods added, “there are more responsibilities...and more distractions that are at a tournament site that are taking you away from what you like to do, which is compete and play.''
While the two luminaries made nice on Tuesday, expect the golf gloves to come off when they face off later this week. And if there’s any needling like the pokes they gave each other in Nike’s new promo, expect the barbs to be sharper, because this time it counts.
''He is going to try and beat my brains out. I know that,'' said McIlroy. ''I'm trying to do the same.''
Tuesday’s pressers revealed a couple of additional interesting tidbits, including McIlroy learning that his new contract may forbid him from donning Tiger’s signature red on Sunday.
"I really couldn't tell you," he said about whether his deal contained such a clause. "I'm not sure. I've won in red before, but I'd rather just wear something that goes with green."
As in the color of money.
And Tiger revealed that, while he never missed a Ryder Cup tee time -- as McIlroy notoriously nearly did in September -- he was bounced from an amateur contest for being late.
"I missed a tee time in a junior event," said Woods. "I called in for my tee time and said 'Woods' when they asked for my name. Unfortunately, there was a guy called Steve Woods in the field and they gave me his time.
“It was a pretty empty feeling to show up and know that I had cost myself the chance to win the tournament.”
Fortunately for McIlroy, he wouldn’t know anything about that.