HUMBLE, Texas – Rory McIlroy waited until Tuesday morning to send a text message to Tiger Woods. He figured his buddy and fellow swoosh purveyor was a little busy on Monday evening following his third victory of the season, a triumph that allowed Woods to pass him on the Official World Golf Ranking and placed golf fans into a frenzy just two weeks prior to the Masters.
So McIlroy slept on his congratulatory remarks, then fired out a text before Woods teed it up in the Tavistock Cup, telling him, “Well done.” The two bantered back and forth electronically for a few minutes until Tiger offered some unsolicited advice in advance of this week’s Shell Houston Open.
'He told me to get my finger out of my a-- and win this week,” Rory reported with a smile.
Horrific mental imagery aside, a victory from McIlroy would be the next piece in an ever-intriguing chess match between the game’s two most polarizing stars. In a year that began with a Nike commercial entitled, “No Cup Is Safe” during which each player was doing his best “anything you can do, I can do better” routine, Woods is beyond one-upping his pal, taking an early 3-up advantage in the ongoing race for prominence among the game’s elite.
Then again, with Tigermania back in full effect, now seems like an appropriate time to interrupt this regularly scheduled jubilee to bring the following news: With a win this week, McIlroy can reclaim the No. 1 ranking in the world.
Maybe it says something about Rory himself or the weightiness of the position or the been-there, done-that part of the experience, but he doesn’t view the opportunity to leapfrog Woods again as any particular motivation.
“As [Woods] said [Monday], it was a byproduct of playing well and winning golf tournaments,” McIlroy explained. “He’s done that more than anyone this year and if he can take care of that, then that takes care of itself. It’s always nice to say that you’re on top of the world and on top of the rankings, but if you play the golf that you want to and win the tournaments that you want to, then that takes care of itself.”
Just weeks removed from glumly speaking about the pressures of the No. 1 ranking, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that McIlroy now cares so little about it that he didn’t even know what it would take this week – a win and only a win – to retake the honor.
Consider it a quixotic quandary: Not being No. 1 should free him up to play better golf, which in turn could translate into him becoming No. 1, when he may endure the pressure once again and play worse golf.
If the game is one of a cyclical nature, then McIlroy’s ebbs and flows could form the ultimate concentric circle.
When asked Tuesday if it’s a relief to not have the weight of the world ranking resting upon his shoulders, the 23-year-old acquiesced.
“I guess at the minute, yeah,” he said. “It’s nice to just go about my business and no one cares, go about it and not be the most talked about person in golf. It’s a nice thing.”
In fact, McIlroy seemed downright elated to talk about someone other than himself for a change. Of the 28 questions he received from reporters during his pre-tournament interview session, 17 were either directly about Woods or indirectly about Woods’ impact on his status.
Without hesitation, Rory spoke glowingly of the recent performance from his friend and main competition.
“His consistency is definitely back and he’s playing well week-in, week-out,” he stated. “When he was going through the first part of the swing changes with Sean [Foley], some weeks he had it, some weeks he didn’t. It seems like most weeks he comes out, he’s hitting the ball very solidly and anyone that’s going to beat him is going to have to play very, very well.”
McIlroy won’t have to beat Woods this week, as the new-old No. 1 is taking the next two weeks off prior to the Masters. That doesn’t mean he isn’t playing against him in one respect.
Whether he wants to or not, he will retake that role atop the world ranking with a victory this week. It’s not such a far-fetched scenario considering a final-round 65 in his last competitive round at the WGC-Cadillac Championship just a few weeks ago.
If it happens, McIlroy will pose with the trophy on the final green, one finger aloft to denote reclaiming such status.
And yes, he’ll likely receive another text message from Woods about that finger.