Popcorn time: Tiger vs. Rory at the Black
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Tiger and Rory, sitting in a tree...

Rory and Tiger. Tiger and Rory. The past and the future are playing together in the first two rounds of The Barclays, at Bethpage Black, no less.

Sit back, kick your feet up and get ready to watch some fun — and hopefully great — golf. And no, it won’t be awkward.

Sorry, folks, but the dynamic between Tiger and Rory is more like a bromance than a rivalry.

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods actually like each other. Like, a lot. They share a mutual respect. They have some sort of bond and that’s a good thing.

It’s almost strange to watch them interact. Or rather Tiger show such genuine fondness for his “replacement” as golf’s golden boy or the new king on the block or whatever people are calling this changing of the guard.

I didn’t realize they were so chummy until the PGA Championship when the two were giggling and hanging out like old buddies on the driving range at Kiawah Island after the first round. Tiger was even checking out Rory’s clubs, pulling them out of the bag to see what the kid was hitting, and he was also watching Rory swing. Their mini-hang-out sesh lasted a good 15 minutes.

Tiger and Rory hanging out at Kiawah, photo taken by Ewan Murray

Jaws were dropping left and right as members of the media observed from a short distance away. I mean, Tiger went out of his way to stop and watch Rory swing and to chat — you know, like a regular human being. This doesn’t usually happen in public, where there are cameras and hundreds of people watching.

Tiger isn’t as “unfriendly” as people think, but he’s also not a social butterfly, per se. He’s actually a lot more friendly to his peers than it seems, but it’s rare to see him act so buddy-buddy with a foe. Maybe at the start of the week, but hardly ever once the tournament has begun (besides Arjun Atwal, his designated practice round companion and good friend).

He doesn’t bad-mouth his competitors (publicly). In fact, he’s more polite than several other big-name players. When asked about his fellow golfers, he usually provides a politically-correct compliment, but it’s hard to tell if he really means it. However, you can easily tell (at least in my opinion) when he’s being genuine. (Exhibit A: He’s often brought up Ryo Ishikawa and raved about the kid’s game without being prompted.)

“Well, it’s going to be fun for both of us,” said Tiger Woods on Wednesday in his presser when asked about his pairing for the following two days. “I enjoy playing with Rory, and I hope he feels the same way about being in the same group as me.

“I got a chance this year to play with him at Abu Dhabi in a practice round there, and we really hit it off. He’s a great kid and it’s great to be around him. What an amazing talent he really is.”

Rory echoed Tiger’s sentiments: “I’m looking forward to (playing with Tiger). I really enjoy his company. I know we’ll have a good time out there. It really focuses you from the get-go, a pairing like that.”

This will be the first time the two are paired together in competition. Hard to believe, huh?

Tiger isn’t easily wowed, but he likes Rory because he respects the kid’s game. Rory grew up with Tiger as his boyhood hero. Interestingly enough, Tiger is partly to thank for giving the golf world Rory and the other amazing young talents.

Part of Rory’s charm and appeal is he’s the antithesis of Tiger. Their demeanors on- and-off-the course are polar opposites. But they have one thing in common for certain, which is what united them in a way: Their incredible talent that sets them aside from their peers. It’s too early to say what Rory’s effect on the game will be and where he’ll fit in history. Tiger’s is still in the works, but it’s established.

Oh, wouldn’t it be more juicy and fun if the greatest player of this era and possibly the greatest player of the new era hated each other? Naw, it’s better this way.

McIlroy continued: “You know, I’m looking forward to it. I really enjoy his company. I know we’ll have a good time out there. I’m keeping him waiting here, so I’ll stop talking about him.”

Tiger had arrived, and indeed, had to wait for Rory to finish his turn at the podium. He didn’t appear to mind.

Next question. A reporter started asking about the Ryder Cup. “I know the Ryder Cup is a ways away, but how..”

Rory didn’t miss a beat, “Yeah, I’d love to go out there,” he said. “I’d love Tiger to go out first and kick his ass (laughter).”

See what he did there? Only 23 years old. Are you taking notes, Tiger? Ah, never mind.

Is there a rivalry between them?

“I’ve always said, the players don’t build up rivalries themselves, people from the outside build up the rivalries,” said Rory. “I just want to play good golf. I want to try and keep winning golf tournaments. You know, that’s all I can really concentrate on, just concentrate on myself.”

Tiger is 13-plus years older than young Rory, and it appears as if he’s passing along the torch to the 23-year-old two-time major champ from Northern Ireland.

“I was always the youngest against when I played against Vijay, Phil and Ernie, Goose,” said Tiger when asked what separated Rory for his former foes. “We went at it for just over a decade. I was always the youngest one out of that group.

“Rory is considerably younger than I am, but this is another generation. Those guys I just mentioned are all in their 40s, and this is the next generation of guys that are coming up, and Rory is one of them who’s in his 20s.”

There you have it. This confirms the changing of the guard in golf. Tiger is SO 2000s.

Welcome to the 2010s and perhaps beyond.

So what separates Rory from the pack? Does he remind Tiger of himself?

“I won a couple about the same age as he did, and we’ve seen it before with Rory, once he gets it going, he gets it going. There are a few guys out here on Tour, the guys that I’ve actually grown up playing against, that once they get rolling, they get rolling,” said Tiger. “Calc is of them, Johnny Ray was another one. These guys could just go ungodly low. And I think Rory has that ability, once he gets rolling, he just makes birdie after birdie after birdie. Not afraid to keep trying to push it, to try to shoot lower scores. Some guys have a little governor on them and they’ll back off, but there are a few players that just don’t have that.”

No fear.

Added Tiger: “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.”

//and if he beats my majors record

Rory is the best player in the world, according to the Official World Golf Rankings. However, we know they’re flawed, but so far, they seem to be the best system to track performance empirically in a subjective sport where there’s no longer one dominant player. As silly as it may be sometimes, we need some sort of “objective” way to rank players.

As Rory points out, it’s hard to say pinpoint just one “best” player in the world. It’s subjective, to an extent, But there’s an edge that sets apart those who have the “IT” factor and the rest of the pack.

“The thing about the best players in the world and maybe the people that are slightly under, they’re just able to get it done,” said McIlroy. “I don’t know if it’s just because they’re a little better under pressure, they’re able to handle the situation better. That’s something that I learned a lot at Augusta last year when I didn’t finish off the tournament so well. It’s something I had to learn how to do, and I feel like I’m most of the way there on that.

“I think there’s a few guys, I mean, Tiger has won more than anyone else this year, winning three times. I’ve won a couple of times, including a major. Luke has been very consistent again. It’s hard for me to sit up here and say that I’m the best player in the world or Tiger is. Sure, I feel like I’m the best and Tiger feels like he’s the best. It’s really a hard one for me to come up here and say. Tiger has been the best player in the world for the last 15 years. Just that people are mentioning my name with the likes of him is a huge compliment.”

The former best player in the world and the current best player in the world will tee it up at Bethpage Black at 8:16am on Thursday. Goodie for us.

Now just because Tiger enjoys playing with Rory doesn’t mean he isn’t going to be trying to kick his ass.

When asked if he was ready to have his butt kicked by Rory at Medinah in next month’s Ryder Cup matches, Tiger, smiling, said, “At Medinah? No.”

“I feel every time I’ve played with Tiger, he’s sort of brought the best out of me,” said Rory. I really feel focused and obviously want to play well.”

I have a feeling Tiger will be more chatty on Thursday and Friday than his former foes, like say, Phil.

Well, this sounds like it’s going to be fun for everybody. Probably even for Zach Johnson, the third player in the group.