TIGER Woods has a new nickname for Rory McIlroy – "The Intimidator". But don’t expect the American’s knocking knees to distract the Northern Irishman when they partner each other in Thursday’s first round of the Tour Championship.
Woods came up with the moniker in response to Greg Norman’s claim that “Tiger is intimidated by Rory”. When asked about the Australian’s comments here at East Lake yesterday Woods joked “it must be the hair”, referring to the world No 1’s curly mop. McIlroy seemed even more bemused.
“How can I intimidate Tiger Woods?” McIlroy said. “I mean the guy’s got 74 PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. He’s the biggest thing ever in sport. I mean, how could some little 23 year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? It’s not possible. I don’t know where he got that from, but it’s not true.”
This little 23 year-old, with a few wins from his last few tournaments, just happens to be in pole position in the race to pick up $10 million on Sunday, the bonus for winning the FedEx Cup.
Woods is in second place in the points standings meaning that for the third time in the last four events the pair will play with each other. Their burgeoning rivalry and friendship has been the theme for a play-off series which has eclipsed the five previous stagings.
Except Woods does not believe this finale is totally fair and will feel sympathy for McIlroy if he or anyone else was to deny the Northern Irishman the outrageous spoils.
“It’s set up for that it if the guy wins the first three play-off events and comes second in the Tour Championship he could still lose it,” he said. “I don’t think that’s quite fair.”
McIlroy has won the last two play-off events, the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston and then the next week’s BMW Championship in Indianapolis, and would indeed fall short if he came runner-up to Woods or the other three players - Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson and Brand Snedeker - who form the top five in the list.
In fact, despite winning half of the events which form the FedEx Cup, McIlroy could conceivably lose out to the player ranked 30th coming into this shoot-out. “I’ve got Vijay Singh to thank for that,” McIlroy said.
He is aware that he would already have been assured of the bumper payout if the system had not been ripped up in the wake of Singh rendering the Tour Championship irrelevant two years ago, by sewing up the FedEx Cup with two wins.
Desperate for an exciting finish, the PGA Tour decided on a points reset going into the climatic week, which gives the leader only a slender advantage. The fact is McIlroy would be in exactly the same position if he had only edged the points standings over the first three weeks, instead of leaving the rest standing.
“The Tour Championship didn’t have the impact it probably should have, hence the change in the system to where it is now,” Woods said.
“I was told [when they made the change] that it would be very similar to what the New England Patriots went through in 2007. They swept the regular season, swept the play-offs, but didn’t win the Super Bowl.”
For McIlroy’s part, he isn’t moaning. “I don’t mind,” he said. “Look, it obviously makes it exciting going into the last event. It would be nice to have it already wrapped up, but that’s just the way it is. I accept it and I accept that I still have a lot of work to do this week.”
If he succeeds, McIlroy can congratulate himself with overcoming the FedEx absurdities.
Last year, Bill Haas came from 25th in the standings to win, thanks to what he called “the perfect storm”. It is difficult to imagine coming outside the top 18 in this 30-man field to allow Webb Simpson to perform the same ridiculous leapfrog this time around.
McIlroy agrees that he is the form of his life so far and is determined to ride his wave, not only to Sunday but until next week’s Ryder Cup as well.
“No I haven’t produced such a sustained level as this before,” McIlroy said. “It’s been a great stretch, starting with [the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at] Akron, having a good finish there and then really building on that confidence.
"To win three of my last four events, with a major championship victory in there [the USPGA] and then two play-off tournaments featuring some of the strongest fields of the year, yeah, it’s been very satisfying.”
In this staggering period, McIlroy has defined himself from his rivals and it would only be just to see him become the first European to be crowned as the PGA Tour’s No 1 here.
He would head to Chicago for the biennial dust-up as the overwhelming man of the moment with everyone talking up the possibility of a Woods-McIlroy showdown in the Sunday singles. If that is to happen then today will be a mere taster.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I wouldn’t enjoy it, because I would,” he said. “It would be very exciting to be a part of, of course. But the Ryder Cup’s about the team, not just us two.”
James Corrigan in Atlanta, Telegraph.co.uk