It may not be a full-fledged rivalry yet, but their head-to-head pairings in the FedEx Cup playoffs and their appearances on Sunday leaderboards over the last two weeks have ratcheted up the intensity of interest in how these two titans match up.
With three titles in his last four starts – a major (PGA Championship) and back-to-back playoff events – Rory McIlroy, 23, just might be on his way to carving out a first in the Tiger Woods era. He just might be evolving as the first player who is consistently favored over Woods, 36, in the game’s biggest events.
Just ask the oddsmakers.
They are the foremost experts at gauging the public’s perception of who is most likely to win a tournament. They don’t base their odds and the financial well being of their multimillion-dollar businesses on who they think will win. They base those odds on their evaluation of the public’s perception of who will win.
Going tonext week, McIlroy is the prohibitive favorite.
Ladbrokes makes McIlroy the 4/1 favorite at East Lake with Woods at 5/1.
They aren’t alone.
William Hill is posting the same odds as Ladbrokes. BoyleSports makes McIlroy an even heavier favorite at 7/2 with Woods 5/1. So does Coral Sports, with McIlroy at 4/1 and Woods at 6/1.
All 13 sports books listed on Betting Zone’s extensive listing of oddsmakers have McIlroy as The TOUR Championship favorite.
Notably, McIlroy will be playing East Lake for the first time as he makes his debut in the Tour Championship.
Woods excels at East Lake. In his last four starts there, he has won once and finished second three times.
The game’s top analysts don’t see the match-up a whole lot different than the bookmakers right now.
NBC’s Roger Maltbie has observed McIlroy and Woods close up the last two weeks as an NBC on-course analyst. He believes McIlroy has an advantage over Woods in their current form.
“I just think right now, as far as the complete package, all the edge has to go to Rory from a confidence standpoint, driving standpoint, putting standpoint,” Maltbie said in an NBC/Golf Channel teleconference. “Right now, he’s on top of all those elements.”
Maltbie believes Woods has more shots, and more trajectories, for more conditions, but he believes McIlroy’s superior driving and ability to hit such towering iron shots into greens gives him the current advantage, as does McIlroy’s hot putter.
“When Tiger is on top of his game, it’s case closed,” Maltbie said. “But right now, he's in a little different situation. There's someone else on his radar that he's looking at and going, `Wow.’ He even admitted last week, he says, `Geez, I'd like to hit it as far as he hits it.’
“When Tiger dominated the game, he was certainly the longest, most effective player, using power, that we've probably ever known. I just think it's a little different dynamic right now, and I think it's a bit of an uphill climb for Tiger. But with that said, he's certainly capable of regaining the top spot, no question.”
NBC’s Johnny Miller also sees McIlroy with an advantage off the tees and on the greens.
“Tiger is no short hitter, [but] the big advantage is the driver, [McIlroy] is much more accurate than Tiger is off the tee now, with a little more distance,” Miller said. “The worst shots of McIlroy are better than Tiger's (worst shots), and, I can't believe I'm saying this, but he might be out-putting Tiger for four rounds.”
Since McIlroy turned pro late in 2007, he has teed it up in the same PGA Tour or European Tour event as Woods 43 times.
McIlroy is 23-17-3 when measured against how Woods finished in those events.
McIlroy has won five of those common events, Woods has won three.
McIlroy is 14-5-2 when measured against how Woods finished in tournaments they both played the last two seasons.
Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee likes where the emergence of McIlroy and the comeback of Woods is taking the game. He sees an exciting change from the last couple years, where parity and rotating No. 1s was the theme.
“There was a sense that no matter what the world rankings said, that, really, Tiger Woods was the de facto No. 1,” Chamblee said. “Well, now, I think if you took a poll, most people would say Rory McIlroy is clearly better than Tiger Woods, which is preposterous. I think we are in the beginning of one of the best eras in the history of the PGA Tour.”
Chamblee believes the emergence of McIlroy against Woods ranks among The Great Triumvirate, The Big Three and Tom Watson’s challenge of Nicklaus as compelling eras.
“Now, you've got a rivalry being born between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, and from a nostalgic aspect, you still have Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh and Ernie Els around,” Chamblee said. “So, golf, I think is as good as we are ever going to see it in our era. It's fantastic.”
Miller is fascinated by the growing friendship of Woods and McIlroy, the connection they’ve made. He finds it telling.
“I think that Tiger is going through an interesting, humbling process the last three or four years,” Miller said. “He's 36, and I think he has realized, maybe, what's important in life, and maybe it doesn't all have to do with 18 holes out there.
“I think he still really wants to do great, and he'll be driven, but I think he was over driven before. I think now he's enjoying relationships. He’s enjoying friendships, and I think, actually, he'll be a happier person. I think he'll still play great golf, but he's starting to enjoy guys that do well and be happy for them.
“I’m not saying he’s Steve Stricker, but there’s a little transition there, and I think it’s a good one. I think he’ll realize as he gets older that there’s a lot more in life than just major championships and what happens on the golf course . . . He’s in a pretty good place right now.”
Competitively, Woods is in a different place. He’s chasing a top player, instead of everyone chasing him.
Maltbie finds that telling.
“There's one component we kind of missed, maybe, in watching Tiger all these years,” Maltbie said. “He is the greatest closer, greatest frontrunner that there has ever been. He operates best when he's looking back, not trying to go forward, so to speak, and trying to pass people.
“I just think he's in a position now, where it is clear, maybe by some of the comments Tiger made himself last week, that maybe there’s a little level of deference to Rory, right at the moment. I liken it very much to the way Ernie Els was, when he saw Tiger. It was like, `Wait a minute. Here is a guy that does stuff that I don’t know that I can do right now.’ I think Tiger is seeing some of that in Rory.”
Chamblee like Maltbie’s analysis of Tiger’s challenge in no longer being the frontrunner.
“You can almost look at the first 15, 16 years of Tiger’s career as one big golf tournament,” Chamblee said. “He was by far and away ahead, by far and away the best. Going forward, as another golf tournament, he is not the best. He is not in front, or now chasing a player. And now the world doesn't really know if Rory is better than Tiger or Tiger is better than Rory.
“So I think the last part of Tiger's career, this next 10, 15 years, could prove to be just as interesting in a different light. How does Tiger rise to that challenge? He's never had that challenge before.”
Whether Woods is chasing McIlroy, or McIlroy is chasing Woods, the storyline is dominating golf.