by Doug Ferguson
RORY MCILROY AND Tiger Woods already have been linked twice this year.
There was that practice round together in Abu Dhabi, and being in the same group for the opening two rounds.
Then, they shared the stage at PGA National, where McIlroy played the lead role at the Honda Classic by answering a late charge from Woods to win the tournament and go to No. 1 in the world.
Look back to the summer of 2010, when McIlroy said he would “love to face” Woods in the Ryder Cup. That comment was made as Woods was at the low point in his game, and the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland did add, “Unless his game improves.”
Is it too early for a rivalry?
Hunter Mahan believes it is, only because he thinks Woods’ biggest rival is retired.
“His rival is Jack Nicklaus,” Mahan said. “It’s hard to put anyone up there right now with him. I understand his last few years haven’t been his best and everything that’s going on, but that guy, he’s had numbers that no one has even thought about reaching.”
There’s some truth to that.
McIlroy reached No 1 in the world after 115 tournaments that count toward the ranking. Woods played 21 tournaments before he first reached the top of the world ranking.
What they have in common is raw talent, the ability to control the golf ball like few others, a passion to compete and winning majors in record fashion at an early age. Woods was 21 when he set the Masters record at 270 and won by 12 shots. McIlroy had just turned 22 when he shot a 268 — breaking the U.S. Open record by four shots — to win at Congressional.
Woods is 36, although rivalries never have been about age.
Nicklaus was 10 years younger than Arnold Palmer, and 10 years older than Tom Watson. Sometimes it can be about going head-to-head — Greg Norman and Nick Faldo come to mind — though mostly it’s about taking turns winning tournaments, and winning majors.
McIlroy still has a way to go. Besides, he’s not interested in rivalries at the moment.
“I’m going to let other people make the comparisons,” McIlroy said. “I’m not going to try and compare myself to anyone else. I’ve never said that I want to be the next anyone. I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy, however good that turns out to be. Then, I’ll try my best to win tournaments and to win majors and to be the best player in the world.
“There’s still a long road ahead, and I feel like I can accomplish a lot more.”
McIlroy makes his debut as the 16th player to be No 1 in the world today, when he tees off in the Cadillac Championship at Doral with the two players who were No 1 before him — Luke Donald and Lee Westwood.
Woods will be on the opposite side of the course, playing with defending champion Nick Watney and Sergio Garcia. Nicklaus and Woods shared a conversation years ago about rivalries, and Woods has never forgotten what Nicklaus said to him that day in South Africa at the 2003 Presidents Cup: Just make sure you’re part of the conversation.
Golf fans look on at the driving range as golfers prepare to go out during a practice round (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee).
The rivalries with Woods over the years, real or imagined, start with Phil Mickelson and include Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and David Duval. And what does he make of McIlroy, whom Woods described as a “fantastic talent?”
“Well, he’s got to continue to get better, because everyone else is,” Woods said.
“Everyone else is out here working hard to become a better golfer, and more consistent player. And he didn’t get here by not practicing. So continue to do what he’s doing and I’m sure he’s done a lot of different things. He’s working on his game. He’s working on his fitness.”
Lost in this discussion is Mickelson, who returns from a two-week break after playing as well as anyone. Mickelson shot 64 in the final round to win at Pebble Beach (with Woods at his side shooting a 75), then lost in a playoff at Riviera.
Mickelson has never been No. 1, and he has no problems with McIlroy at the top. Still, he looks at a broader picture of Donald and Westwood, former PGA champion Martin Kaymer, and even himself as players capable of taking over.
“We have not had somebody play to the level of Tiger, and so we have four, five, six guys that are battling for the No. 1 spot, it seems, monthly,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know where it will all settle, but certainly he’s a worthy No. 1.”
Tiger Woods waits to tee off during a practice round at the World Golf Championships yesterday. (AP Photo/The Miami Herald, Walter Michot)
Meanwhile, Woods and McIlroy are trying to build momentum coming off vastly different achievements. Woods posted his lowest score ever in the final round, a 62 at PGA National that made him the clubhouse leader. It was the strongest sign yet, especially considering the tough, windy conditions, that he was close to regaining form.
McIlroy was one shot ahead when Woods finished. Moments later, he made a birdie putt, saved par on three of the next four holes and went on to a two-shot win in the Honda Classic, making him the 16th player to be No. 1 in the world. Doral is his last tournament before the Masters.
Even so, both are ready to move on and take this World Golf Championship on its own merits, as a big tournament to win.
“Doesn’t count,” Woods said yesterday before going out for a practice round on the TPC Blue Monster at Doral. “That tournament is over with, whether you missed the cut or won the tournament. It’s over. Now we’re on to a new week, a new golf course, and have to learn it and be ready by Thursday.”