ATLANTA – When it comes to responding to insults, Tiger Woods is on a level with Tony Soprano and Miss Piggy.
Like his pal Michael Jordan, who spent his career checking into hotels under the name of the kid who beat him out of a spot in high school basketball, Woods can turn a put-down into a stretch of superior play.
When Stephen Ames disparaged Tiger’s driving accuracy before the 2006 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, Woods was ruthless in his retort, thumping Ames, 9 and 8, with cold-hearted glee.
Two days after Greg Norman suggested that Woods was “really intimidated” by Rory McIlroy, Woods went out in the first round of the Tour Championship and beat his supposed intimidator by three shots. Tiger’s round of 66 was good enough to be tied for the first-round lead with Justin Rose in the FedEx Cup finale.
No word on whether Woods warmed up with a bucket of balls with Norman’s picture on them.
Norman’s comment was the background noise of Woods and McIlroy’s latest round of golf together. (Woods is 6-2 against McIlroy when paired together).
While Tiger made his way up the second fairway, one member of the gallery shouted “Ray Lewis!” referring to the Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker.
Woods cited Lewis in his Wednesday news conference as the reason intimidation is fiction in the game of golf. There is no crying in baseball. There is no de-cleating your playing partner in golf.
Woods was not amused by Norman’s comments Wednesday, but he had fun with McIlroy on Thursday. The two walked side by side for much of the round, talking about the fast speed of play with only 30 players in the field, enjoying the kind of rapport rarely seen between Woods and other would-be rivals.
As Rory has ascended to No. 1 in the world and claimed victory in three of his last four starts, his relationship with Tiger has been analyzed from every angle.
Why is Tiger close with Rory and distant with Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson? How can Tiger, taught to beat everything on the golf course, share laughs with Rory on the fairway?
“He’s a great kid,” Woods said. “Over the years, certain pairings I’ve enjoyed. Rory is one of them.”
Woods went on, speaking like the veteran of golf (and life) that he is, and not the single-minded destroyer he has long been viewed to be.
“You probably don’t believe this, but I get along really well with a lot of guys out here,” Woods said. “Rory is no different. This is a fraternity out here. That’s one of the great things about being out here for 17 years. You get to know the guys quite well.”
Woods, at 36, may be learning to enjoy his walks more, even as he seeks to stack trophies on his mantel and prove the doubters wrong, be they Norman or anyone else.
Woods may not be closing out tournaments as he once did, but he’s still getting after it, still grinding hard against Rory and the rest.
And as he showed on Thursday, amid sharp barbs from the Shark, few can parry a blow better.