Tiger vs. Rory: Exhibition, but more

By Ryan LavnerOctober 28, 2012, 5:21 pm

Whatever happens Monday in China won’t alter the career trajectories of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.  

But intrigue nonetheless will be high when the top two players in the world, the biggest draws in the sport and the game’s most marketable players compete in an 18-hole exhibition – promoted as the Duel at Lake Jinsha – on Monday afternoon in the northern Chinese city of Zhenghou.  

McIlroy has done his part to hype the match-up, telling European reporters this week, “Tiger was a hero of mine growing up, and having watched him on TV doing all these incredible things, it’s now pretty cool to get to know him personally and play against him.”  

But does this 18-hole round mean anything? What can we glean from the end result? Since the budding rivals have squared off so much recently, has the showdown lost any of its appeal?

For context in this match-up, remember the initial reactions to the duo’s last encounter, two weeks ago at the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final. It was an eight-man exhibition. Half the field wore shorts. Last place received $300,000. Motivation was low, if not non-existent.

Yet in their Round 3 match, Woods waxed the world No. 1, 64-70, a round that was either momentous or utterly meaningless, depending on your rooting interest. Tiger continued in the competition, though he was bounced in the next round. Rory repaired to the resort pool with his tennis-star girlfriend. Both significantly padded their bank accounts.

“Recently we’ve played a lot together and it’s been fun,” Woods said, “but nothing like this.”

Statistically speaking, at least, Woods has owned McIlroy in head-to-head play. In the 10 rounds they have faced off, dating to the 2010 World Challenge, Woods owns an 8-2 record. His only losses came this season, during the opening rounds of both the Abu Dhabi Championship and BMW Championship, the latter of which McIlroy went on to win.  

The 23-year-old Northern Irishman is the undisputed No. 1 in golf, the most dominant player in golf (and potentially for the foreseeable future), yet he’s been unable to topple his “hero” with any regularity when the two have been paired together. Could that oddity change Monday?  

Both he and Woods are coming off sterling performances in their respective tournaments over the weekend, though both came away trophyless. On Sunday at the BMW Masters in Shanghai, McIlroy was edged by Ryder Cup teammate Peter Hanson, despite firing all four rounds in the 60s. Though deflated by the runner-up finish, McIlroy strengthened his lead in the yearlong Race to Dubai, as he inches closer to becoming the second player in two years to capture the money title on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Woods, meanwhile, matched a personal best by carding 28 birdies during the CIMB Classic in steamy Malaysia, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome a five-shot deficit entering the final round. He eventually finished joint fourth, three shots behind Nick Watney, whose course-record 61 in the final round sealed a one-shot victory.  

Afterward, Woods attempted to downplay expectations for golf’s version of playground 1-on-1, saying, “We will both probably be a little bit tired, but we’re going to try and put on a good show, shoot a low round and have a little bit of fun.”  

Added McIlroy, “I treat these exhibition matches as a bit of fun and it will be good to get bragging rights, but I will be trying hard to win here in Shanghai, so it will be hard to get myself up for Monday against Tiger.”

Hard to get myself up? Sorry, not buying it.  

Sure, this could be construed as merely a four-hour hit-and-giggle, a global version of the “Showdown at Sherwood,” an exhibition apparently not even worthy of being broadcast to fans in the U.S.

But, no, this is Rory vs. Tiger, world No. 1 vs. world No. 2, golf’s new king vs. the most dominant player of his generation.

The outcome won’t alter the career trajectory of either player, but that doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential.

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Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”

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Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:11 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.

He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.

Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.

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McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.

“I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”

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A performance fit for a King

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:08 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 40 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.

So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just won the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the scrum, he was instead asked to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.

“Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”

But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud. With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.

“Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.

The connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.

Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.

Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.

Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”

McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.

“I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.

And entertained, of course.

Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy recalled with a chuckle.

“And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’

McIlroy laughed at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”

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McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.

During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.

But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, when he was admittedly searching.

“The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.

McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.

“He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.

Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.

And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.

“The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career. 

Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.

Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.

Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.

“I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”

Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.

“He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.

“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.

Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.

But after the past 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.

There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.

A kiss for his wife, Erica.

A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.

The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.

“Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”

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McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 1:06 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Fresh off a stirring victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy offered a pair of culinary factoids about two of the game’s biggest names.

McIlroy regretted not being able to shake Palmer’s hand behind the 18th green after capping a three-shot win with a Sunday 64, but with the trophy in hand he reflected back on a meal he shared with Palmer at Bay Hill back in 2015, the year before Palmer passed away.

“I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy said. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

A few minutes later, McIlroy revealed that he is also a frequent diner at The Woods Jupiter, the South Florida restaurant launched by Tiger Woods. In fact, McIlroy explained that he goes to the restaurant every Wednesday with his parents – that is, when he’s not spanning the globe winning golf tournaments.

Having surveyed the menu a few times, he considers himself a fan.

“It’s good. He seems pretty hands-on with it,” McIlroy said. “Tuna wontons are good, the lamb lollipops are good. I recommend it.”