Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy met on the links for the first time at last year's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and an eventful golf season followed.
Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy rivalry still on the cusp
Whether it withstands the drifting sands of time or not, there is no disputing where it all really began. Right here in the UAE, a year ago, when Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods not only played together for the first time in an official event, in Abu Dhabi, but fought down the stretch for the trophy.
A budding rivalry took root. Maybe even a buddy rivalry.
Neither won the title last January at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, but that did not stop them from intersecting a total of eight times in European or US PGA tour play in 2012, not to mention a couple of meetings in unofficial events or exhibitions abroad.
The champion and the challenger – list them in whatever order suits your rooting interest – 12 months ago marked the genesis of a long, mutually beneficial and potentially lucrative competition.
Or at least, most folks associated with golf's trajectory are hoping as much.
"Whether we develop a rivalry remains to be seen," the ever-cautious Woods wrote on his website after the season ended.
"Let's just let it play out and see where it takes us. We'll look at the results the next five or 10 years and see if it becomes a rivalry or not."
More like five or 10 minutes, because it is heating up, fast. In the weeks since the duo played three rounds together at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a sense of anticipation has ramped up.
Let's see where it takes us? Last year, it transported the duo to the UAE, China, Turkey, New York, Indiana and Georgia, just in terms of head-to-head rounds. From the arid soil of the UAE sprung forth the most exciting development in the game in years - a one-v-one exchange that could last another decade or more.
Hype aside, this time, it feels different. Over his 17 years as a professional, Woods, 37, has had several worthy, albeit intermittent and largely short-term, foes.
But the top-ranked McIlroy, 23, is the first challenger from the younger generation. Even more remarkably, for the often distant Woods, the relationship has been convivial. First they teed off, then they hit it off.
"I'd played with him before but never really got a chance to speak to him in depth," McIlroy said of his Abu Dhabi experience in a CNN interview. "I think we both have a lot in common. We're both big sports fans and I think our relationship has evolved from there because we've played together quite a lot [in 2012]."
"It's been great for me to get to know him and maybe try and pick up a few things and learn from him, too."
McIlroy has been dubbed the Next Tiger so many times that it makes eyeballs roll backward because Woods has amassed so many titles in such a short period that comparisons seem unfair and ludicrous. But the fact remains, their careers are becoming more intertwined.
On Monday, Nike is scheduled to announce in Abu Dhabi that McIlroy has signed on as a new pitchman, and evidence suggests that the Northern Irishman will be making as much money from Swoosh, Inc, as does Woods, who would be his stablemate.
Beyond their similar attire, they are separated by only two steps in the world ranking - and about the same distance, geographically. Two months ago, McIlroy set up shop in the States by buying a home in south Florida located a few miles from Woods's ocean-side mansion.
Already, they frequent the same upscale courses in the Palm Beach area, including the Bear's Club, lair of Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear, no stranger to the power of rivalries himself, said last month that a healthy exchange of fire with McIlroy might be what Woods needs to reclaim the No 1 position he lost two years ago.
"When you really don't have a pushing competitor, let's say, or a force that's pushing you - his force pushing him has always been my record," Nicklaus said last month, referring to his 18 major championships. "That's still there. But I think it may get stale during a period of time. Maybe somebody else gives you a kick and boost to go."
Enter Rory's cleated foot.
In eight official rounds in which they were paired, Woods six times shot the lower score. Yet in those five events, McIlroy four times managed the better 72-hole finish and recorded the only victory, at the US tour's elite BMW Championship.
"Tiger certainly hasn't lost his talent, certainly hasn't lost his desire," Nicklaus said.
"But he has got a few more guys out there now who can finish, coming down the stretch, than he had five, six years ago."
McIlroy long has been poised to supplant Woods as the game's top gun, for reasons relating to more than his personal skill set. Timing played a part. Woods was mired in a deep slump following his marital scandal, just as McIlroy's career began a steep ascent. Then, two weeks after McIlroy narrowly bested him in a shootout at the Honda Classic last March, Woods snapped a 30-month victory drought, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
By the end of 2012, however, McIlroy had a second major title among his five global victories, eclipsing Woods's total of three season wins in the States. McIlroy topped the money list in Europe and the US and was named the top player on both tours.
Game on, neighbour.
That was hardly the only metric wherein McIlroy challenged Woods's position in the game. Last year, a London-based marketing magazine, SportsPro, ranked McIlroy as the second-most valuable commodity in sports based on several subjective assets, including charisma, age, crossover appeal and willingness.
Woods barely made the list, at 47th.
Indeed, the most palatable hook for 2013 is that, for the first time, after trading jabs with Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and numerous others at various points over his career, Woods is actually the underdog in this scenario. Do not underestimate how much that notion will stick in his craw, regardless of how much he likes McIlroy, personally.
"I think our relationship will certainly grow over the years, but so, too, will our competitiveness," Woods told CNN last year. "I don't think that's going to change."
That seems unlikely, even though nearly everyone likes McIlroy.
Woods, however, has a history of keeping his distance. His former swing coach, Hank Haney, whose 2012 book The Big Miss chronicled his time with Woods, noted that Woods never got chummy with anybody he felt could pose a consistent threat.
The age gap could be significant. The one elite golfer who could be described as a Woods friend is Mark O'Meara, who at 57 is 19 years his senior. Could McIlroy, 14 years younger than Woods, also benefit from generational distance? "I had a huge age difference with my other good friend, Mark O'Meara, but we had so much in common," Woods said.
There is plenty of room for this bromance to breath, too. The duo has yet to be grouped in the fourth round, whether a tournament title was on the line or not, though they were placed in the final and penultimate pairings last year in Abu Dhabi, when Robert Rock slipped past them both to win.
"We'll have to win big events and play each other down the stretch," Woods wrote last month. "That hasn't happened yet. We've only played each other at the Honda down the stretch. We need more of those types of battles, but in bigger events."
Truth be told, Woods finished an hour before McIlroy at the Honda, so McIlroy was merely shooting at a scoreboard number, not a certain somebody in a trademark red shirt.
Lack of big Sunday skirmishes or not, so far, it has been a clear case of mutual admiration whenever the draw sheets have paired them.
"It really focuses you from the get-go, a pairing like that," McIlroy said. "I feel every time I've played with Tiger, he's sort of brought the best out of me."
Woods, sounding almost protective, hopes the attention and expectations do not become too suffocating for the talented lad from Holywood.
"He's a great kid and it's great to be around him," Woods said. "What an amazing talent he really is. I just hope that everyone just lets him grow and develop as a player because it's going to be fun to see over the next 20 years how this kid's career is going to pan out."
If he maintains his current form until age 47, Woods will represent a roadblock for half of that potentially dizzying decade.
"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," McIlroy said.
Some have already aligned themselves according to their player preferences. Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion, said McIlroy has the tools to win more majors than Woods, who has 14. The former world No 1 Luke Donald called McIlroy the most talented player he had ever seen.
In their final head-to-head meeting of 2012, the two played in a one-day exhibition in China, wearing microphones and gabbing freely. Woods even confided a few things about his coach and inconsistent wedge play, having seemingly forgotten that the audio was being broadcast. McIlroy shot 67 to win by a shot.
"It was close the whole day, and was pretty exciting for the fans," McIlroy said. "It would be great to compete more with Tiger like this.
"Maybe down the home stretch in the majors."
On that note, the Rory rooters, Tiger trumpeters and everyone in between are in complete agreement.
Great Modern Golf Rivalries
Jack Nicklaus vs Arnold Palmer They slugged it out on the golf course, over corporate endorsements and as course designers bidding for the same architect deals. Nicklaus won his first title after beating Palmer in a play-off at the 1962 US Open, and their frequent battles put the sport on the front pages. American author Ian O’Connor wrote an entire book about their 50-year relationship in 2009.
Sam Snead vs Ben Hogan These friendly adversaries, along with fellow seminal figure Byron Nelson, were born in the same year. Hogan was a late bloomer, but was dominant for years, while Snead was more successful over his career. As introverted as the steely Hogan could be, the folksy Sneed was frequently as outgoing.
Jack Nicklaus vs Tom Watson Though he won a record 18 majors, a few players gave the Golden Bear all the fight he could handle, including Watson, now a close friend. Watson outduelled Nicklaus in brilliant fashion to win British and US open titles at Turnberry and Pebble Beach, two of the most-remembered majors.
Tiger Woods vs Phil Mickelson It’s had an interesting ebb and flow, for sure. In their earliest battles, Woods drilled Mickelson with regularity. Then Mickelson hired Butch Harmon, Tiger’s old coach, and the swing guru gave Lefty some insight into the mental tricks Woods had long used against him.
Greg Norman and Nick Faldo For eight years during the 1980s and ‘90s, either Norman or Faldo was the No 1-ranked player in the world. Two-thirds of the time, it was Greg. The data favored Norman, but it was Faldo who ruled in the majors, taking the Aussie down at St Andrews (1990) and Augusta National (1996), finishing with a 6-2 edge in slam events.
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