Tiger vs. Rory makes the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs compelling this week.
With Woods and McIlroy paired together in the first two rounds, The Barclays fascinates on a number of levels, including the contrast in styles of play, particularly from the tees.
McIlroy likes to play aggressively. He likes to attack. You see it in how often he hits his driver.
“Rory is an aggressive player,” Graeme McDowell said. “His driver is the best weapon in his bag. He’s totally the best driver of the golf ball I’ve ever seen.”
McIlroy hits his driver fearlessly, for the most part. Woods, for the longest spell the last couple seasons, seemed to hit his fearfully. While McIlroy loves hitting driver, Woods doesn’t seem to like hitting his. There have been times the past two seasons when watching Woods pluck driver from his bag has been like watching a man yank a bandage off a wound, but that seems to be evolving as his swing changes take better hold.
While Woods has taken conservative game plans into big events this year, hitting fewer drivers than most players, he looked pretty good with his driver at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in his last two starts. He didn’t just hit the big stick better in those events, he hit it more than he has been most of this season.
The stats will tell you Woods is fourth on the PGA Tour this year in total driving but tied for 39th in driving distance (296.9 yards per drive).
McIlroy is 60th in total driving but sixth in driving distance (309.2).
While the first two rounds at Bethpage Black may decide very little this week, we’ll get a glimpse into what decisions Woods may face as he bids to beat the game’s emerging young power players. Bethpage Black is a big, brawny course.
We will probably see McIlroy hit his driver wherever possible. We’ll see what kind of advantage it may give him on Woods. We’ll see if it will force Woods to play more aggressively, to hit more drivers.
Or, by contrast, we’ll see if McIlroy has to scale back to play with Woods in more fairways. We'll see if McIlroy gets himself in more trouble playing aggressively.
This shapes up as a classic strategic matchup that may affect future strategies.