By Ryan Lavner, Golf Channel
Rory McIlroy led from the opening hole and topped Tiger Woods by a shot Monday in a wildly entertaining exhibition in Zhenghou, China. More fascinating than any of the shots struck at Jinsha Lake, however, was the uncensored interaction between the top two players in the world.
Players were wired for sound during the pay-per-view, made-for-TV event, which only enhanced the experience for the viewer. If you didn’t mind eavesdropping, it was wonderfully enlightening.
Tiger and Rory talked equipment. After walking off the fourth tee, McIlroy grabbed Woods’ Nike iron and swung a few times. Later, they talked golf balls and spin rates. (Rory-to-Nike conspiracy theorists … unite!)
They talked swing changes. On the 10th hole, Woods admitted to “struggling with Sean (Foley),” his swing coach, saying, “I’ve been hitting my short irons so (expletive) far.” He went on to explain how he rarely took a divot with his short clubs under former coach Hank Haney, but now, though, “all of a sudden, I’m thinking divots.”
They talked Honda Classic. McIlroy won the tournament in March, of course, and moved to world No. 1 in the process, while Woods closed with a stirring 62 to tie for second. “All that fist-pumping for nothing,” woofed McIlroy.
They talked Malaysia. Woods said he lost eight pounds last week in Kuala Lumpur, and that the heat was so suffocating, “it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I had sweat dripping off my shirt when I was over the ball.” Apparently, he also lost his pin sheet on Saturday, which could help explain the third-round 69 that dropped him off the pace. (He eventually finished joint fourth.)
They talked scheduling. Woods noted that this was his first full season since 2005; that he likely will dial back his number of events next season; and that, post-British Open, U.S. players are plenty busy – maybe even too busy – with the FedEx Cup and all of the late-season jet-setting.
They talked English Premier League soccer and Kiawah Island and Ryo Ishikawa, who two years ago shot 58 the same week Rory fired 62. “Smoked your (butt),” Woods quipped.
Indeed, there was no shortage of barbs, quick and pointed.
And the golf was pretty stellar, too.
They played in 3 hours, 15 minutes, chatted up and down each fairway and required little time over the ball – perhaps to avoid the incessant clicks from cellphone-wielding fans. No doubt, it was a stark contrast to their most recent encounter, two weeks ago at the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final, when Woods rarely engaged with his opponent and dusted a listless McIlroy, 64-70.
On Monday, with a light fog hovering over Jinsha Lake Golf Club for much of the exhibition, McIlroy shot a bogeyless 67 to edge his boyhood idol by one. It was just the third time in 11 rounds that the Northern Irishman has defeated Woods in head-to-head play, though it’s ill-advised to form any concrete conclusions from an 18-hole match.
“It was pretty close,” said McIlroy, who a day earlier finished second at the European Tour’s BMW Masters. “Tiger made a few birdies on the back nine, and I just tried to keep my nose in front.”
Woods, despite outdriving the 23-year-old on almost every tee shot, never led during the match. He pulled within a shot after a stellar birdie on the 14th, but proceeded to miss makeable birdie putts on 16 and 17, then sailed his approach on the final hole into the back bunker.
“We had a great match,” Woods said afterward. “It was a lot of fun, and I think everyone here enjoyed it. It’d be fun if we can do something like this again.”