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Sparks flew Thursday between Woods, McIlroy

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CARMEL, Ind. – When they were done sparring, when they were done trading a flurry of magnificent golf blows Thursday at the BMW Championship, you couldn’t have blamed Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods if they beat a path their separate ways.

They were breathing down each other’s necks all day in a spirited game of one-upsmanship.

They practically wore each other out answering one sensational shot with another.

Yet, after Woods chipped in for birdie at the last for a 7-under-par 65, and after McIlroy poured in a birdie on top of that for a 64, they stood side by side on Golf Channel and broke down their rounds together.

And they heaped praise on each other.

“It's fun to play with him, and he's just an amazing talent,” Woods said. “You watch him swing the club and watch him putt and play, he doesn't have a lot of weaknesses. You can see that, in the next decade or so, as he really matures and understands some of the nuances of the game, he's only going to get better, and that's kind of fun to see.”

Huh? Lions don’t share their turf, do they?

If you wonder how sincere this growing friendship is, if you have a hard time believing two fiercely driven competitors who covet the same big prizes can really like each other, you should have seen them marching into the Crooked Stick clubhouse locker room together.

You should have seen them moving to a table upstairs to have lunch after their round, just the two of them in a corner near a window.

The mutual respect is palpable.

After the fireworks show they put on Thursday, it could only have grown. They combined to make 16 birdies and an eagle.

Sure, it was only the first round, but McIlroy showed Woods something, and Woods showed McIlroy, too.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Woods said. “This is the next generation of guys coming out. He hits it great, putts it great, and on top of that he’s just a really nice kid.”

The two of them chattered the entire round like schoolboy chums.

You could see them laughing walking fairways, and you could see them engaged in more serious discussions.

What were they talking about?

“Anything, everything, whatever,” McIlroy said. “Just normal stuff, about this, about that.

“I’ve always enjoyed playing with Tiger, and every time we’re paired up, we seem to have a good time.”

McIlroy said it’s the only time he really gets to throw some playful digs at Woods, and Woods loves that. He loves giving it back.

McIlroy is just 23, Woods is 36, but there’s clearly a connection between them.

“He’s very mature,” Woods said. “He understands and handles things well.”

Zach Johnson played with Woods and McIlroy when they were paired together for the first time in a PGA Tour event at The Barclays two weeks ago.

“The way Tiger and Rory play the game is very similar, and you can tell they do like playing together,” Johnson said. “Tiger is the best player I’ve ever played with, and Rory has the potential to be in that category. Rory’s already won two majors in the Tiger era. That tells you something.”

Thursday marked the seventh time Woods and McIlroy were paired together as pros, but just the second time McIlroy posted a better score when they were head to head. Still, in the last two years, McIlroy is 13-5-2 when measured against Woods in events they’ve played together.

They first played together two years ago at the Chevron World Challenge, Tiger’s event at Sherwood Oaks in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

McIlroy said their first pairing was nerve-wracking.

“Yeah, of course,” McIlroy said. “You’re watching a guy your whole life, you’re growing up watching him do all these unbelievable things on TV, and then you’re stuck in there with him. Yeah, Chevron was the first time I got to play with him, and I was a little nervous. But the more I’ve played with him, obviously the more comfortable I’ve been. I think that’s showed the last few weeks.”

McIlroy didn’t really know Woods very well until they played a practice round together at Abu Dhabi earlier this year. They also played the first two rounds there together.

Whatever connection they made, they seem to be bringing out the best in each other.

That bodes well for golf-loving fans who want to see more fireworks shows like we saw Thursday at Crooked Stick.