“He calls me ‘The Intimidator,’ McIlroy said Wednesday as he tried to stifle a laugh.
Woods has never had much of a rival during his 17 years on the PGA Tour, at least not for long. Now, he can’t escape the growing shadow of McIlroy, who comes into the Tour Championship as the undisputed No. 1 player — in the world ranking, the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour money list and every other important category.
What triggered his one-liner at East Lake were comments Greg Norman made in an interview with FoxSports.com.
“What I’m seeing is that Tiger’s really intimidated by Rory,” Norman said. “When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never.”
For the longest time, Woods was said to have a two-shot advantage just by stepping on the first tee. He was the most prolific winner in golf, averaging about six wins a year and piling up 14 majors faster than anyone in history. The red shirt was blazing.
Now, the baton appears to have been passed over to McIlroy. He arrived at the Tour Championship having won three of his last four tournaments, starting with that record eight-shot victory at Kiawah Island in the PGA Championship for his second major. He won consecutive FedEx Cup playoff events in Boston and Indianapolis to stretch his lead in the world ranking and become the favorite to win at East Lake and capture the $10 million bonus.
It’s an intimidating record. McIlroy doesn’t see how that translates into Norman suggesting that he’s intimidating.
“No, how can I intimidate Tiger Woods?” he said. “The guy’s got 75 or 70 whatever PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. He’s been the biggest thing ever in our sport. I mean, how can 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.”
There’s no room for intimidation on either side at the moment. They’ve been around each other too much lately.
When they tee off in the final pairing today, it will be the fifth time in the last four tournaments that Woods and McIlroy have played in the same group and the eighth time this year, including the Abu Dhabi Championship.
McIlroy is in his fifth full year as a pro, but he can’t think of a time when he ever felt intimidated by Woods.
“I don’t think intimidated is the right word,” McIlroy said. “More just in awe of what he’s done, of his accomplishments, of his achievements. But never intimidated.”
Woods and Norman have never had much of a relationship, and Woods wasn’t about to get wrapped up in an exchange of words Wednesday. Asked if he had seen Norman’s comments, he replied, “It’s got to be the hair, yeah.”
That was a joking reference to McIlroy, who in an interview with the Times of London last week talked about the banter between him and Woods. The 36-year-old Woods makes fun of the kid’s height. McIlroy, with his curly brown locks, fires back at Woods for his age and diminishing hair line.
The only time Woods ever felt intimidated on the golf course was when he was 11. It was a story he told a decade ago about competing against a 12-year-old in a junior tournament when the older boy drove the green on a 290-yard hole. Woods still wound up winning.
On this day, either tired or annoyed by Norman’s comments, Woods gave an elementary response to this intimidation factor.
“This is a different kind of sport,” Woods said. “We go out there and we play our own game. And see where it falls at the end of the day. As I said, it’s not like you go over the middle and some guy 255 pounds is going to take your head off. This is about execution and going about your own business and seeing where it ends up at the end of the day. It’s just the nature of our sport, which is different than some sports.”
But if there’s a 255-pound linebacker in golf at the moment, it’s a freckled-face Boy Wonder who is on a roll that brings natural comparisons with Woods.
McIlroy has an average score of 68.1 in his last five tournaments, which dates to the Bridgestone Invitational where some swagger returned to his game. His confidence has never been higher. He showed up at Crooked Stick expecting to win the BMW Championship, and that’s what he did.
Now he has to avoid falling into the trap of being overly confident, a nice problem to have.
As dominant as McIlroy has been over the last few months, the FedEx Cup title comes down to the Tour Championship. The points are reset to give all 30 players in the field a mathematical chance of winning, with the higher odds attached to the highest seeds.
Any of the top five seeds — McIlroy, Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker — only have to win the Tour Championship to claim the $10 million bonus. A year ago, Bill Haas was the No. 25 seed and won the FedEx Cup through a bizarre chain of events in which none of the top three seeds finisher higher than 20th in the Tour Championship.
Woods is the only two-time winner of the FedEx Cup, though this is his first time back at East Lake since 2009. He didn’t qualify for the Tour Championship in 2010, and he didn’t make any of the playoffs last year after missing a chunk of the season with leg injuries.
McIlroy is playing East Lake for the first time, a rugged test that puts a premium on fairways and greens. Lately, he’s been doing just about everything right.
“The way I’ve played since Firestone, it obviously gives you a lot of confidence,” McIlroy said. “But I think you have to guard against being overconfident, as well. You have to still go in and work hard. You’ve 30 players in this field, 30 of the best players in the world, and I’d be very naive to think that I’m just going to come in here and contend again and have a chance to win.
“I know I’m going to have to play very well,” he said. “And hopefully, I can do that.”