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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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.

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Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.

The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.

It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.

"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."

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Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.

Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.

"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."

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Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 10:33 pm

After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.

La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.

"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."

Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.

The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.

"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."