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McIlroy may be Woods' one true rival

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Seems the only thing Greg Norman is guilty of is hyperbole, or a misplaced dictionary. Either way, the Shark missed the mark when he said earlier this year that Tiger Woods is intimidated by Rory McIlroy. He must have meant motivated.

What else would explain the 36-year-old’s newfound clarity of competitive thought? December’s World Challenge will be Woods’ 24th global event, the most he has played since 2005, and last week he didn’t sound like a man edging gracefully for the good life.

“It was nice to be able to be healthy enough to where I have the opportunity to play as much or as little as I want, it wasn't something I was forced to sit on the sidelines, forced to rehab and try and get myself back into a position where I can compete,” he said. “I was able to compete and play as many tournaments as I wanted to. So that was a positive.”

No, the Ulsterman didn’t put that spring back in Woods’ step – that honor belongs to multiple knee surgeries and a new swing designed, at least partially, to keep him off the DL – but there is no mistaking what McIlroy’s meteoric rise has meant to the former world No. 1.

We’ve been here before. False rivals have come and gone and from Lefty to El Nino they have all fallen short to varying degrees of the ultimate billing. But Tiger vs. Rory moved beyond budding this year at the Honda Classic, when the youngster held off Woods who closed with a 62, and raced passed potential when McIlroy lapped the field at Kiawah Island in August for his second major walk-off.

Even Woods, who has had little interest in media hype throughout his career, acknowledged there is something afoot when asked on Wednesday at the CIMB Classic in Asia about the rivalry.

“For a number of years I've been the youngest one. Throughout my years it's been Phil (Mickelson), Vijay (Singh), Ernie (Els), Duval (Duval), Paddy (Harrington),” Woods said. “I was the youngest of all of those parties. Rory is younger, so this is the next generation of guys. It's neat to be part of that generational change.”

McIlroy is quick to point out the last dozen majors are normally the hardest, showing deference to Woods’ 14 grand slam tilts and Hall of Fame resume, but the golf universe, upended since 2009 by Woods’ pedestrian play and parity, has unmistakably been narrowed to two names.

The only thing, to be sure the key thing, missing is the classic Sunday showdown at a major. Well, that and anything close to animosity. The duo will play for show on Monday at the “Duel at Jinsha Lake,” which is missing that “Rumble in the Jungle” cachet but the subtext remains unchanged.

Many of sport’s best rivalries have been contrived. Muhammad Ali no more hated Joe Frazier than Magic Johnson loathed Larry Bird, but all sides understood the importance of perception.

The perfect combination of mutual petulance and competitive parity is rare, so if Woods and McIlroy sidestep acrimony for the congenial high road then so be it. We’ll take our rivalries with or without a side of order of mutual distaste, although there are no shortage of pundits who suggest the relationship is not what it seems.

Some conspiracy theorist have suggested Woods’ friendship with McIlroy is little more than a business ploy to woo his young rival over to Nike Golf, which, according to numerous reports, is trying to sign the Ulsterman to a 10-year endorsement deal. Perhaps, but you never heard Woods clamoring to fit Mickelson with a “Swoosh.”

Maybe a jump to Nike for McIlroy would be an economic boon for Woods, but you know what else would help the bottom line? Winning majors, and right now the biggest threat to Woods reaching Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 grand slams is a healthy, happy McIlroy.

“We're the top two players in the world right now, and we get to compete against one another. To us it's fun,” Woods said last week. “We have fun out there and we both like to compete. For us to go out there and compete against one another, we're ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, respectively. It's a lot of fun to be able to have those opportunities.”

Maybe there is an ulterior motive for Woods’ budding friendship with McIlroy, but it has nothing to do with endorsement deals or cleverly crafted ad campaigns. In McIlroy Woods sees a kindred spirit, a reason to improve or be passed and, if the cosmic tumblers cooperate, a distant thought of Sunday duels at Augusta National and beyond.

For Norman it was an honest mistake, the fine line between intimidated and motivated is often lost in the psychological grey area. But the truth is Red Shirt outplayed his young rival in six of the eight times they were paired together this season.

It’s not a fear of McIlroy that now seems to embolden Woods, it’s the future possibility that this could be the rivalry that we’ve all been waiting for.