Woods, McIlroy share respect, desire to beat one another
- By Jason Sobel
- Aug 22, 2012 3:41 PM ET
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – There was a poignant moment between the world’s two best golfers in The Barclays interview room on Wednesday afternoon.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Poignant moments between the best golfers aren’t supposed to happen in interview rooms. They are meant to occur between the ropes, the players trading knockout punches until only one remains standing on the final green, his arms raised triumphantly as the other slinks away in wonderment of where it all went wrong.
If it does, we’ll surely remember what took place before the tournament. With McIlroy sitting in front of the microphone and Woods standing in the back of the room patiently waiting his turn, he was asked about a potential Ryder Cup match against the other player in attendance.
“I'd love Tiger to go out first and kick his ass,” Rory said with authority.
Sound the alarms. Raise the flags. Prepare the extra bold headline font.
It was a warning shot if there ever was one, the brash 23-year-old calling out the 14-time major champion. It was the stuff of debate and conjecture that could dominate the sports talk airwaves for days.
Except for one little thing.
From the back of the room, Woods cheerfully responded, “Good to see you, too!” and the two men shared a hearty laugh, breaking any possible tension and solidifying the exchange as friendly banter rather than ruthless trash talk.
Chances are, there would be no laughter. Then again, there would be no comment in the first place. That’s the thing about saying you’re going to kick someone’s ass. If you really mean it, you probably don’t say it.
Instead, the back-to-back interview sessions with McIlroy and Woods – playing competitors for the upcoming first two rounds – transformed into a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society, each player taking turns lobbing praise toward the other.
Rory: “I feel every time I've played with Tiger, he's sort of brought the best out of me. … I really enjoy his company. I know we'll have a good time out there.”
Tiger: “He's a great kid and it's great to be around him. What an amazing talent he really is. I just hope that everyone just lets him grow and develop as a player, because it's going to be fun to see over the next 20 years how this kid's career is going to pan out.”
If it seems like a strange dynamic, that’s because it is. Woods has always commended his fellow competitors, but the compliments could often best be described as guarded, the superstar rarely effusively heaping adoration onto another player.
So why is it happening now? One theory is that Rory is … different.
There’s no doubt that when the man who won majors by 12, 15 and eight strokes by the age of 24 looks at McIlroy and sees an opponent who has won a pair of ‘em by eight at 23, he sees a little of himself in that picture, too.
“I won a couple about the same age as he did, and we've seen it before with Rory; once he gets it going, he gets it going,” Woods said. “I think Rory has that ability, once he gets rolling, he just makes birdie after birdie after birdie. Not afraid to keep trying to push it, to try to shoot lower scores. Some guys have a little governor on them and they'll back off, but there are a few players that just don't have that.”
Another theory is that Tiger is … different.
Not a different player, mind you, but a man of a different mentality, one now more secure in his place amongst the game’s hierarchy and one who sees fit to nurture the best of the future generation, much as he was in his youth.
His long-term goals may remain the same, but at 36 years old, Woods seems to find a special type of motivation in trying to keep up with McIlroy and the other talented 20somethings.
“That's the neat thing about what Jack [Nicklaus] had done,” he explained. “Jack competed against Arnold [Palmer] and Gary [Player] and [Billy] Casper and then moved on to [Tom] Watson and [Lee] Trevino and [Tom] Weiskopf and [Johnny] Miller. He crossed generations, and when you're a part of that conversation for the better part of 25 years, that's saying something. I was kind of hoping when I started off my career I'd be part of that conversation for that length of time.”
Now that he’s zeroing in on such a legacy in his 17th professional season, it doesn’t hurt that his greatest young rival is a man whom he likes and respects – and the feeling is mutual.
Whether it’s his boyish charm or his Northern Ireland influence, McIlroy always appears to say the right thing at the right time. When asked on Wednesday whom he thought was the best golfer in the world – a roundabout way of asking the No. 1-ranked player, “Are you better than Tiger?” – he handled it with the same precision employed in draining an uphill 2-foot putt.
“It's hard for me to sit up here and say that I'm the best player in the world or Tiger is,” he said. “Sure, I feel like I'm the best and Tiger feels like he's the best. It's really a hard one for me to come up here and say. Tiger has been the best player in the world for the last 15 years. Just that people that are mentioning my name with the likes of him is a huge compliment.”
We’ll be mentioning their names together for years to come, starting with this week, as they’ll play together in an official PGA Tour event for the first time.
Expect some extended hours from the Mutual Admiration Society this week, with McIlroy and Woods continually and continuously sending praise each other’s way.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that they also don’t desperately want to beat each other. When asked whether he was ready for the aforementioned ass-kicking, Tiger pursed his lips and without smiling coolly stated, “No.”
Hey, some things never change.
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