NEWPORT, Wales — Phil Mickelson came to the defense of Rory McIlroy on Wednesday, calling him one of the classiest players in golf and his desire to play Tiger Woods is the goal of every player who wants to beat the best.
The back-and-forth between McIlroy and Woods has captivated the early days of the Ryder Cup. McIlroy said in August he would "love to face" the world's No. 1 player unless his game improves. Asked about that comment, Woods defiantly said, "Me, too."
Mickelson was surprised to hear it had become such a big story.
"That's the type of charisma that Rory McIlroy has," Mickelson said. "He's just like any other top player that wants to take on the best. That's not any type of controversy or saga."
Padraig Harrington said everyone on Europe's team wanted to play Woods in previous Ryder Cups because when the world's No. 1 player was on top of his game, his opponents had nothing to lose. Woods was expected to win every match.
Now that Woods' is a captain's pick who has failed to win this year, Harrington isn't so sure.
"In many ways, it will be a tougher match this time around," Harrington said. "He'll be more enthusiastic, more motivated, so I would be very wary of him myself."
Woods said a year ago that McIlroy had the game to eventually be No. 1 in the world. The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland won his first U.S. tour event this year by closing with a record 62 at Quail Hollow.
McIlroy tied a major championship record when he opened with a 63 at St. Andrews in the British Open, where he tied for third; and he tied for third at the PGA Championship.
Told that Woods' did not appear happy with McIlroy's comments, Mickelson again was surprised.
"They get along great, are you kidding me?" Mickelson said. "Rory is one of the nicest guys you can imagine. He's one of the classiest guys out on tour. Tiger gets along with just about everybody – usually because he beats them, and he's nice to them when he beats them. Rory is as classy a guy as there is. I've been paired with him a bunch, and I really enjoy playing with him."
McIlroy is the latest player whose comments annoyed Woods.
The most famous was Stephen Ames, who jokingly said he had a chance against Woods in the Match Play Championship, "especially where he's hitting the ball." Woods beat him in the first round, 9&8.
At the 2000 Presidents Cup, the caddie for Vijay Singh – Woods' opponent in the single match – wrote "Tiger Who?" on the back of his cap. Woods won the match, and later told that story by saying the score (2 and 1) was his best response. There also was the time Michael Campbell said he looked forward to taking on Woods at the Match Play, and when Woods stepped on the first tee, he said to Campbell, "I hear you want a piece of me." Woods won, 5 and 4.
Whether Woods and McIlroy play each other is a matter of chance, as the Ryder Cup features a blind draw.
U.S. captain Corey Pavin said it would violate the spirit of the matches for him and European captain Colin Montgomerie to arrange Woods and McIlroy to face each other in singles.
"But I think it would be fun for me to watch," Pavin said.