Woods-McIlroy friendship comes full circle

By Rex HoggardJanuary 15, 2013, 11:35 am

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Between media grillings and photo ops with a camel in a caddie bib, or whatever it was the ungulate was wearing on Tuesday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods stole a quiet moment to catch up.

It’s what friends do, be they childhood pals, college buddies or workplace acquaintances.

Defining the budding relationship between the world’s Nos. 1 and 2, however, is not that simple. When it comes to the game’s alpha and omega no one is exactly sure of the extent of their friendship – be it bromance, big brother or BFF.

It is, by any definition, new territory for Woods, so the media’s fixation with whatever the bond that has formed between Red Shirt and the wunderkind is at least partially understandable.

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With the possible exception of Mark O’Meara and John Cook, who were only briefly Woods’ contemporaries, never before in his now 17-year professional career has he let someone in so publicly.

Woods wasn’t so much emotionally unavailable as he was aloof, some would even say gated in by a fishbowl existence. Yet there they were outside the Abu Dhabi clubhouse on Tuesday, goofing and grinning like schoolmates on the first day of a new semester.

“We’ve certainly hit it off, and our relationship has grown and our friendship’s gotten better,” Woods said. “It’s been fun.”

Those with suspicious minds have suggested the Rory-Tiger relationship is born from mutual monetary gain, pointing to Monday’s much-anticipated announcement that the Ulsterman had joined Woods in the Nike Golf fold as Exhibit A. But that seems to be an over simplification at best and a gross misunderstanding at worst.

“It was entirely (McIlroy’s decision),” Nike Golf president Cindy Davis said on Tuesday when asked if Woods had any impact on McIlroy’s decision to join Nike. “That young man is very impressive. He went through the entire process and made the decision himself.”

If all parties are to be believed, and there is no reason to think otherwise, McIlroy’s decision to bolt for the Swoosh was his alone and exclusive to his friendship with Woods that began, of all places, at Abu Dhabi Golf Club a year ago.

It was an impromptu nine-hole practice round on Tuesday before last year’s event that set the wheels in motion for a friendship that at its core seems based on a deep mutual respect and an appreciation of sophomoric humor.

“Before this time last year we would say hello in passing but not really anything else,” McIlroy said. “Once Tiger sort of gets to know you and trusts you, I guess, and lets you in then it’s great.”

Both players suggested familiarity – there were paired together eight times in 2012 – breeds friendship. But if that’s the case, why didn’t Woods develop a similar relationship with Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson – hold your punch lines – after a decade of shared tee times?

No, this goes beyond a bond born of mutual association.

There is, with apologies to armchair psychologists everywhere, an appreciation between the two that appears rooted in a unique understanding of greatness.

Woods, who has been known to put up competitive walls when he’s on Tour, appreciates McIlroy’s talents and the measure of his greatness better than anyone else could. You don’t win two major championships by record margins by accident and few can relate to the work and energy that takes better than a kindred spirit.

“It’s great to just spend time with him and pick his brain about a few things if I feel the need to, but it’s a relationship that’s definitely based on respect,” McIlroy said. “He’s been a huge hero of mine growing up and he’s done some incredible things in golf. I think he respects me for what I’ve done on the golf course, too.”

Unlike Woods’ idolization of Jack Nicklaus, McIlroy didn’t grow up with Woods’ major championship resume pinned to the wall in his room back home in Holywood, Northern Ireland, but the appreciation for greatness was manifest.

Of course the subtext to this bromance is the theory that in McIlroy Woods now has a true rival, a singular talent driven to perfection on par with the standard Woods set early in his career.

But Woods has been here before. Throughout his Hall-of-Fame career he has been paired with no fewer than a half dozen “rivals” – from Mickelson to Vijay Singh to Sergio Garcia. But in the end, none have been able to sustain the challenge, which makes McIlroy’s ascension to the top of the heap that much more enticing to everyone, it seems, except Woods.

“It would be very similar to saying that I had a rivalry with Phil two years into my career. That wasn’t the case. It takes time,” he reasoned on Tuesday. “It’s only been a few years, so let’s just give it time and see how it pans out.”

The same could be said of Rory and Tiger’s friendship, a pairing that should only be nurtured by McIlroy’s recent move to South Florida. McIlroy plays out of the Bear’s Club while Woods seems entrenched at the nearby Medalist Club. If the small unspoken print between the lines is any indication, Woods and McIlroy’s friendship goes well beyond photo ops and business arrangements.

“I’m sure we’ll have a few dinners together and certainly hang out a bit more,” Woods said.

Tiger and Rory, BFFs – at least until Sunday at Augusta National.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.