Rory McIlroy, two-time major champion.
Rory McIlroy, intimidator?
Funny stuff, that last one. At least McIlroy thinks so. The thought alone made his shoulders dip on Wednesday morning, a slight, sheepish grin slowly emerging. He appeared to be a youngster caught up to his elbow in the cookie jar – even if, in this instance, it was little of his doing. If Greg Norman introduced the concept earlier this week, telling FoxSports.com that Tiger Woods is intimidated by McIlroy and his game, then the Irish wunderkind quickly dismissed the notion at the Tour Championship.
Norman told FoxSports.com, “What I’m seeing is that Tiger’s really intimidated by Rory. When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never.”
To which McIlroy replied, “How can I intimidate Tiger Woods? I mean, the guy’s got 75 or 70-whatever (actually 74) PGA Tour wins, 14 majors … I mean, he’s been the biggest thing ever in our sport. How could some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? It’s just not possible.”
A short time after McIlroy spoke on Wednesday, Woods, who on Thursday at East Lake Golf Club will be paired alongside McIlroy for the fifth time in these FedEx Cup playoffs, entered the press room and downplayed any bubbling “controversy,” initially with humor (“It’s got to be the hair,” he joked). He then added that intimidation isn’t a big factor in the sport he plays.
“Some individual sports, such as tennis, you actually can do that physically, because you’re playing against somebody,” Woods said. “Here, no one is affecting any shots.”
At least Woods was kind enough to playfully bestow a new nickname on McIlroy: The Intimidator.
Sure, nobody physically affects any other player’s shots in golf. But Woods also knows his assessment that intimidation is no factor isn’t totally true; it would be blind to say that intimidation never plays a role in golf. It can provide a tangible edge to a player in dominance. We saw it when Jack Nicklaus put his name atop a leaderboard and others around him managed to tumble. We saw it when U.S. players had to take on Seve Ballesteros in the Ryder Cup. We saw it when Woods dominated the game without peer in 1999-2002, creating an aura that he was invincible, untouchable and uncatchable at so many of the big events. (Hey, the man won seven majors in 11 starts during that stretch.)
Is Woods intimidated by McIlroy? A resounding no. But this latest concoction stirred by Norman certainly invites a closer look as to where these two stand in the game: one on the very top of it, having just won the last major by eight shots, the other hoping to recapture lost glory by winning majors once again (Woods is 0-13 since winning the 2008 U.S. Open).
As dominating as the youngster has been since starting to build momentum with a solid finish at WGC-Bridgestone seven weeks ago, he needs time to tell us where his story will lead. Butch Harmon, who had a unique view as coach to Norman and Woods when both ascended to No. 1, said Wednesday morning he found Norman’s comments “to be kind of strange, to be honest.” But Harmon also acknowledges there are times when intimidation in golf looms large.
“With Rory and Tiger, no,” he said. “When Tiger was in his heyday, yes.”
Not that McIlroy couldn’t develop into an intimidating presence in the near future, Harmon acknowledges. But in finding a golfer to go toe-to-toe with Woods, too often everyone is far too quick to pass judgement (see Woods-Singh,Woods-Mickelson, Woods-Els, Woods-Garcia and Woods-Duval). The key ingredient no one can rush is time.
Is McIlroy intimidating the others on the PGA Tour these days?
“I don’t think he’s won enough,” Harmon said, who is profuse in his praise for McIlroy’s talents. “He’s far and away the best player in the world at the moment, there’s no doubt about that. I would agree with that 100 percent. But I don’t think the other players are intimidated by him. Now, if he continues to win majors and numerous tournaments, then yes, that could possibly happen. But I don’t see that right now.”
McIlroy, talented and affable, is simply the latest in line for us to grab by the collar and ordain The Next One. It’s all part of a bigger picture, to fulfill an insatiable thirst for golf to produce a thundercrack collision that gives us a lasting rivalry alongside Woods, who has dominated the game since turning pro in 1996. To Woods’ credit, he has seen several challengers to his throne, some mere pretenders, come and go through the years. Always he is the one left standing.
“We wanted Tiger and Phil to be a rivalry for years over here, because they’re the two best American players we’ve had in the last 20 years, but Tiger played so well, it really didn’t matter how Phil played, because Tiger just seemed to play better,” Harmon said. “So when Rory comes along, and he’s won two majors at a young age and is starting to win a lot of tournaments, yeah, we want there to be a rivalry. But is it the rivalry with Tiger, or is it the rivalry with somebody else? I think time is going to tell.”
As for now, the facts are this: McIlroy is the kid with the red-hot hand, and Woods, 37 in December, isn’t drifting off into the sunset anytime soon. McIlroy (four victories, including a major) would seem to have a lock on Player of the Year accolades, yet if Woods could win his fourth title in Atlanta this week, taking his third FedEx Cup crown along with it, there’s certainly room for debate.
Delicious stuff, even if these two didn’t seemed overly thrilled to jump into the fray.
McIlroy was signing some Tour Championship flags as Woods entered the front of the press center early Wednesday, the Great One giving the kid a gentle left-handed tap on his back. They’ll tee it up together Thursday, which still thrills McIlroy. Asked if he’d like to draw Woods in singles at the Ryder Cup, McIlroy said he’d be dishonest if he answered anything but yes.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I wouldn’t enjoy it, because I would,” McIlroy said.
When such a matchup was broached with Woods, he stared straight ahead, steely, knowing if that did happen, he’d finally have direct control in putting some of this peripheral noise to rest.
“That would be fun,” he said.