JERSEY CITY, N.J. – As Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy met the media for a Nike product launch at Liberty National Golf Club on Monday evening, more than one attendee noted that the Statue of Liberty looming in the background could have symbolized not only freedom and independence, but a not-so-subtle passing of the torch.
This was not long after the world’s erstwhile No. 1 and its current top-ranked player traded barbs during a taping of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” with McIlroy landing a seemingly innocuous blow to Woods’ dominance by painting it in the past tense.
This night, though, wasn’t about any sort of budding rivalry between Generation X and Generation Next.
If anything, it once again shined a spotlight on a developing camaraderie between two of the few golfers who know what it feels like to walk in the other one’s spikes. It was a reminder that Woods has served in the same big brother type of role for McIlroy that players like Mark O’Meara and John Cook did for him when he was in the midst of becoming a mega-superstar.
Wearing matching black hats imprinted with the word “VAPOR” – Nike’s newest line of three sets of irons – Woods and McIlroy flanked emcee Fallon on a stage set with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. They spoke in concert about the benefits of the clubs, from hitting them longer distances to dialing in more preferable spin rates.
Mostly, though, it was a two-way dalliance between two men who were repeatedly referred to by their equipment sponsor as not just golfers but “elite athletes.”
Following a brief Q&A session with the late-night host, it was time to give the new product its first public test drive. With Tiger playing the role of judicious observer – he later divulged that because of his back injury, he won’t swing a club for at least another month – Rory and Fallon took a few hacks of predictably varying degrees.
Rory and Tiger on Monday night's "Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon"
Even during this time, though, the praise never left its alternate shot format.
When Fallon waxed poetic about a towering McIlroy 9-iron to a 150-yard target, Woods echoed the rave review. For his part, the young Northern Irishman simply deflected the compliments. “That’s a Tiger shot right there,” he offered in a tone more sheepish than boastful.
He has reason to gloat, of course. McIlroy captured the year’s final two major titles, which likewise captured the attention of the man who owns 14 of them.
Like the rest of the world that witnessed Rory’s recent dominance, Tiger was also unduly impressed.
“It was just a matter of time,” he explained. “We’ve seen him have runs like this before. He made a wholesale equipment change and also at the same time made a few changes in his swing. It’s tough to make all those changes work at the same time, especially at the elite level.
“When he puts it together, he can get on hot streaks and runs like this. To win two major championships and a World Golf Championship, that’s tough stuff. That’s not easy to do and not many people have.”
In a way, McIlroy foreshadowed his latest run in generalities months earlier.
When asked at one point earlier in the year as to whether golf needed a dominant player, he suggested that he would like to – and possibly could – fill that void while Woods was sidelined by injury.
“As a sports fan, I like to see dominance,” McIlroy said in qualifying that statement. “I like to see people achieving great things and dynasties in sports. That’s what I enjoy watching.
“I wasn’t saying that golf is crying out for a new Tiger Woods. Just a few people to put their hands up and say they’re going to challenge for majors these next few years. I felt like I was part of that group. It’s obviously worked out well for me this summer. I have put my hand up. I have been that dominant player the last few weeks. Now it’s at a point where I want to continue doing that and hold on to that position.”
This was the narrative that flowed throughout the evening, as McIlroy and Woods appeared more like teammates than rivals.
It was a company’s product launch masked as a meeting of the mutual admiration society, a fact that was never clearer than when Rory was asked about shouldering the weight of being the so-called “next Tiger.”
“It’s a huge compliment for me to be compared with Tiger,” he said. “But I'll never be able to do what he's done for the game.”
Here in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, where on Monday evening one could look across the harbor and confuse the symbolism, this was no passing of the torch. It was just two players in matching hats, effusively praising each other and the equipment manufacturer which brought them together.