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Tiger vs. Rory: Exhibition, but more

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Whatever happens Monday in China won’t alter the career trajectories of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.  

But intrigue nonetheless will be high when the top two players in the world, the biggest draws in the sport and the game’s most marketable players compete in an 18-hole exhibition – promoted as the Duel at Lake Jinsha – on Monday afternoon in the northern Chinese city of Zhenghou.  

McIlroy has done his part to hype the match-up, telling European reporters this week, “Tiger was a hero of mine growing up, and having watched him on TV doing all these incredible things, it’s now pretty cool to get to know him personally and play against him.”  

But does this 18-hole round mean anything? What can we glean from the end result? Since the budding rivals have squared off so much recently, has the showdown lost any of its appeal?

For context in this match-up, remember the initial reactions to the duo’s last encounter, two weeks ago at the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final. It was an eight-man exhibition. Half the field wore shorts. Last place received $300,000. Motivation was low, if not non-existent.

Yet in their Round 3 match, Woods waxed the world No. 1, 64-70, a round that was either momentous or utterly meaningless, depending on your rooting interest. Tiger continued in the competition, though he was bounced in the next round. Rory repaired to the resort pool with his tennis-star girlfriend. Both significantly padded their bank accounts.

“Recently we’ve played a lot together and it’s been fun,” Woods said, “but nothing like this.”

Statistically speaking, at least, Woods has owned McIlroy in head-to-head play. In the 10 rounds they have faced off, dating to the 2010 World Challenge, Woods owns an 8-2 record. His only losses came this season, during the opening rounds of both the Abu Dhabi Championship and BMW Championship, the latter of which McIlroy went on to win.  

The 23-year-old Northern Irishman is the undisputed No. 1 in golf, the most dominant player in golf (and potentially for the foreseeable future), yet he’s been unable to topple his “hero” with any regularity when the two have been paired together. Could that oddity change Monday?  

Both he and Woods are coming off sterling performances in their respective tournaments over the weekend, though both came away trophyless. On Sunday at the BMW Masters in Shanghai, McIlroy was edged by Ryder Cup teammate Peter Hanson, despite firing all four rounds in the 60s. Though deflated by the runner-up finish, McIlroy strengthened his lead in the yearlong Race to Dubai, as he inches closer to becoming the second player in two years to capture the money title on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Woods, meanwhile, matched a personal best by carding 28 birdies during the CIMB Classic in steamy Malaysia, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome a five-shot deficit entering the final round. He eventually finished joint fourth, three shots behind Nick Watney, whose course-record 61 in the final round sealed a one-shot victory.  

Afterward, Woods attempted to downplay expectations for golf’s version of playground 1-on-1, saying, “We will both probably be a little bit tired, but we’re going to try and put on a good show, shoot a low round and have a little bit of fun.”  

Added McIlroy, “I treat these exhibition matches as a bit of fun and it will be good to get bragging rights, but I will be trying hard to win here in Shanghai, so it will be hard to get myself up for Monday against Tiger.”

Hard to get myself up? Sorry, not buying it.  

Sure, this could be construed as merely a four-hour hit-and-giggle, a global version of the “Showdown at Sherwood,” an exhibition apparently not even worthy of being broadcast to fans in the U.S.

But, no, this is Rory vs. Tiger, world No. 1 vs. world No. 2, golf’s new king vs. the most dominant player of his generation.

The outcome won’t alter the career trajectory of either player, but that doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential.