Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are paired in the first round of the Tour Championship, the fourth and final event in the quest for the $10 million jackpot. The new BFFs will teeing off shortly — and I’ll be walking with the circus, so follow my tweets for inside the ropes updates if you’d like — but I wanted to catch up on the news I’ve missed in the past few days due to travel delays and a killer migraine.
“You’ve got to beat the guy you’re taking over from to feel that you’re the top guy, and Rory’s starting to do that now,” says Norman, who spent 331 weeks at No. 1, second only to Tiger’s 623.
He notices, too, that Woods is far friendlier with McIlroy than he has been, historically, with rivals, which Norman feels betrays insecurity.
“What I’m seeing is that Tiger’s really intimidated by Rory,” he says. “When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never.
“But I think he knows his time’s up and that’s normal; these things tend to go in 15-year cycles.
“Jack took it from Arnold (Palmer). I took it from Jack, Tiger from me and now it looks like Rory’s taking it from Tiger.”
“And I don’t mean that as a negative to Tiger, because he’s got 14, but the years are in Rory’s favor,” he says.
“Now, there’s a lot of X factors that we don’t know yet with Rory. As I said, he’s got a lot to learn — learning how to win when you don’t have your best game — and we don’t know yet how he’s going to deal with all the scrutiny that comes with being No. 1, but just because he’s so good and so young, I have to go with him.”
“I used to say in my early or even mid-20s that it doesn’t take long for a Rolls Royce to warm up. But the older you get, you can’t do that anymore.
“By the time you get to your mid-30s, the repetitive motion of hitting a golf ball leads to all kinds of issues, and if you look at Tiger, you can see that’s true. He’s got Achilles problems, knee problems; the signs are all there of a decay that’s inevitable.”
Tiger actually has a new nickname for McIlroy: The Intimidator.
McIlroy’s reaction to Norman’s other comments? The 2011 U.S. Open champ and 2012 PGA champ laughed them off in his press conference at East Lake GC on Wednesday morning:
“How can I intimidate Tiger Woods? I mean, the guy’s got 75- or 70-whatever PGA Tour wins and 14 majors. I mean, he’s been the biggest thing ever in our sport. I mean, how could some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him. It’s just not possible. I don’t know where he got that from, but it’s not true.”
Q. Was there ever a time when you were intimidated by Tiger?
RORY McILROY: No, I don’t think intimidated is the right word. More just in awe of what he’s done, of his accomplishments, of his achievements, but never intimidated.
Q. On the same lines here with Tiger, the fact that you’ve won four times with him sort of breathing down your neck this year. How satisfying is that, and what does that say about your development?
RORY McILROY: It is a great feeling to be able to hold off the best players in the world. He came charging on me at the Honda this year, and I was able to hang on and win there. At the Deutsche Bank he was in the group ahead of us and making a run. Not so much last week at the BMW, he was a little far behind. But you look at the leaderboards the last few weeks and you see all the great names and top players on those leaderboards, and to be able to come out on top in recent weeks is obviously very satisfying.
Tiger brushed aside Norman’s comments when it came up in his press conference, and jokingly said, “It’s got to be the hair.”
Jack Nicklaus joined ESPN 980 in Washington D.C. and chimed in on the discussion of the week, via Sports Radio Interviews:
“Quiet Greg, quiet. Down boy. I think Tiger had a pretty darn good year this year. It’s the first time he has gotten himself back into contention in the majors, he didn’t finish them and I think by his own admission he said he had a hard time finishing them. That’s like anything else. He had a pretty big event in his life that changed a lot of things and he has to learn how to go back and play again. I think he’s learned how to play again, now he has to learn how to finish again. I think Tiger has a lot of wins left in him. He does have a lot more competition. During the couple of years when Tiger wasn’t really there all of the sudden you have Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley and I could probably name a half dozen other guys that have all won and learned how to win in Tiger’s absence. They’re not scared of him anymore. Before Tiger just showed up coming down the stretch and everybody said ‘oh there’s Tiger and I wilt.’ They don’t do that anymore. Tiger’s got his work cut out for him but I don’t think Tiger is by any means finished. I just think Tiger is too good of an athlete and too good of a player.”
My quick two cents? I think Tiger is impressed with Rory and his game. We’ve seen in the last few weeks that Tiger’s “best” is no longer good enough to beat Rory’s “best.”
McIlroy is the first player since Ernie Els in 1997 to capture back-to-back victories with Tiger in the field. *Update: My bad. Phil Mickelson won in back-to-back weeks with Tiger in the field in 2009 — the Tour Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions, which at the time did not count as an official Tour win, so that’s where the confusion came from. Regardless, Rory is in an elite club.
What we’re witnessing is the changing of the guard, which was always inevitable.
(Getty Images/Scott Halleran)