Thursday 14 November 2019

Tiger's hunger can put it up to McIlroy

ROLL UP, roll up! It's circus time on Tour once again today as Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods bring the greatest show in golf to the pristine fairways of East Lake, Atlanta.

The prospect of either McIlroy or Woods standing over one putt for a mind-boggling $11.44m (€8.75m) jackpot at the climax to US golf's PGA Tour Championship on Sunday merely adds spice to the fascinating war of succession between them.

Money, in this instance a $10m (€7.65m) FedEx Cup bonus which either man automatically will pocket should he win the $1.44m (€1.1m) tournament first prize, is of secondary interest to the once-invincible Woods and 23-year-old Irish pretender McIlroy.

It's all about rank and prestige, not profit, for these two golfing aristocrats ... that's why both of them are gagging for the chance to go mano-a-mano for nothing but the bragging rights at the climax to the Ryder Cup in Medinah next Sunday week.

"I don't look at the purse or prizemoney. You play and when you do, you play to win."


Those words were uttered by Woods before he won the inaugural FedEx Cup in 2007 and, when it comes to their sport's greatest titles, McIlroy is in the same bracket.

It has been fascinating over the course of the past three FedEx Cup play-offs to note the warmth Tiger has shown the young Ulsterman.

When playing together in the first 36 holes at both The Barclays and BMW Championships, they seemed to shoot the breeze like two chums playing a friendly Sunday-morning two-ball.

Greg Norman is prominent among those who suggest McIlroy has broken Tiger, saying the former ice-king, whose stare used give opponents frostbite, has been psyched out by the young man from Holywood.

"What I'm seeing now is Tiger's really intimidated by Rory," said the Great White Shark, who hasn't been slow to sink his teeth into Woods since 'the crash' of 2009.

"I think he knows his time is up and that's normal. Jack (Nicklaus) took over from Arnie (Palmer); I took over from Jack, and Tiger took over from me. Now it looks like Rory is taking over from Tiger."

McIlroy laughed at Norman's suggestion yesterday.

"No, how can I intimidate Tiger Woods? I mean, the guy's got 75 or 70 whatever PGA Tour wins, 14 Majors. He's been the biggest thing ever in our sport, so how could some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? It's just not possible," he insisted.

"I don't know where he got that from, but it's not true."

Nick Faldo appears to be on firmer ground when he points out that Tiger has been "inspired" by the emergence of McIlroy. Indeed, England's six-times Major-winner believes this latest challenge could spur Woods in his efforts to get back to his former best.

Recent evidence supports Faldo's case, even if McIlroy's lead over Woods at the top of the world rankings has been stretched by his sensational stretch of three wins in four tournaments, a run sparked by his confidence-boosting second Major win at last month's US PGA.

By playing those events in a cumulative 54-under par, McIlroy's outscored Tiger by 18 strokes -- however, details of the four rounds the two of them played together at Bethpage and Crooked Stick reveal that Woods had the upper hand in three of them.

Far from being 'intimidated', Tiger actually seemed to ease into a higher gear in his company. For example, Woods completed the first two rounds at The Barclays in 68 (-3) and 69 (-2), while his young playing companion shot 69 (-2) and 73 (+2), a difference of five shots in the 36-year-old's favour.

A fortnight later at BMW, they were drawn together once again in the first two rounds.

This time McIlroy opened with a 64 to edge Tiger by one stroke, but the latter shot 67 against a 68 by the Ulsterman on Friday.

In keeping with the pattern of all but a handful of his outings in 2012, Tiger's form then simply evaporated at the weekend. His problem, one suspects, is not with McIlroy or any other outside agent, but the loss of his own self-belief.

Woods has yet to rediscover that sense of entitlement he used exude standing over any putt of 10 feet or less, particularly at the Majors, though playing with McIlroy in recent times almost seemed to bring out some of the old Tiger.

If McIlroy in full flow is such to joy to watch at present, imagine the positive vibes, memories and feelings playing with him must stir in Tiger. For him, it must be like catching a glimpse of an almost-forgotten former self.

Woods has won three times this year on familiar ground -- Arnie's place at Bay Hill, Jack's Memorial at Muirfield Village and the AT&T at Congressional. So he should feel especially comfortable at East Lake, where he's finished first or second in his last four appearances, shooting no worse than 67 in 10 of 16 rounds.

In contrast, McIlroy plays his first competitive round there today when he tees off with Woods at 6.55 Irish time. Usually that might be seen as a disadvantage, but so great is the Northern Irishman's mojo, any course he plays these days is home.

In any other arena, his back-to-back play-off victories at Deutsche Bank and BMW would have put McIlroy at a far greater advantage over his 30 rivals in Atlanta than he currently is. Yet the points were redrawn to give every competitor at the Tour Championship a mathematical chance.

Leader McIlroy and any one of his fellows in the top five -- Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker -- will hit the $10m jackpot if they win the tournament.

Mickelson's morale has taken such a boost since he adopted an odd-looking claw grip on the putter last month, he must rate with Woods and McIlroy as one of the hot contenders to repeat his 2009 Tour Championship win here.

Outside the top five, Jason Dufner and Adam Scott present a stout case for selection. Remember, Bill Haas rose from 25th in the FedEx rankings at the start of the week to pocket $11.44m on Sunday last year, while Jim Furyk swept from 11th to first in 2010.

Yet if McIlroy and Woods make the sparks fly once again, the glory (plus that $11.44m windfall) will be theirs.

It would be magnificent if McIlroy could sustain his recent run, but critics like Norman have ensured Tiger's hunger is the greater right now.

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