Commentary

McIlroy, Woods raise games together

Updated: September 6, 2012, 8:11 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

CARMEL, Ind. -- The playing field is more crowded than ever, the evidence overwhelming over the past few years just how difficult it is to win golf tournaments. Tiger Woods knows that better than anyone, the task more pronounced.

At age 36, he is fighting time, a history of injuries and a slew of young players who never had to deal with the dominating figure that was Woods for so long. They are aware of his record, his stunning performance, but have mostly seen him like they see themselves -- as a golfer who has good days and bad.

Throw in Rory McIlroy, and life at the top of the game has become more crowded. At age 23, McIlroy has two major championships, both won by 8 strokes. That's the stuff Woods used to do, and McIlroy has accomplished his major triumphs during a time when many wonder if the former No. 1 can ever return to such heights.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods/Rory McIlroy
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesSparks were flying at the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club on Thursday as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy combined for 16 birdies and an eagle in Round 1.

Woods needs another adversary like he does another knee injury, but McIlroy is actually good for him at this stage of his career. Tiger is certainly not lacking for motivation, not with the longtime goal of Jack Nicklaus' major record still out there.

But you can tell that Rory has given Tiger a spark. Perhaps it is because it is someone new, someone who Woods knows has the ability to be special. Maybe it's because, with a 13-year age gap, Woods has a greater appreciation for what McIlroy has accomplished -- and for what he has ahead. It doesn't hurt that Woods seems to truly like the Northern Irishman.

"Well, it's nice to be part of that conversation,'' Woods said after his 7-under 65 on Thursday was 1 back of McIlroy at the BMW Championship. "As Jack [Nicklaus] said numerous times, it was nice to be part of the cross-generational conversations we had with Gary [Player] and Arnold [Palmer] really, a little bit of [Ben Hogan] maybe.

"He was part of the [Tom] Watson and [Tom] Weiskopf and [Lee] Trevino and all those guys. It was nice to be in it for over 20 years.

"This is my 17th year out here. The guys I battled head to head are early 40s if not late 40s, like Vijay [Singh] is late 40s. This is the next generation of guys.''

Parity in golf seems like a good premise, the idea that a variety of players can win at any different time, the numbers borne out by the lack of domination over the past three seasons. But in truth, golf fans prefer such command, and second to that, rivalries.

That is why you can't help but like what is going on right now with McIlroy and Woods, who will play together again on Friday during the second round at Crooked Stick Golf Club.

They didn't disappoint Thursday, McIlroy shooting 8-under-par 64 to share the first-round lead with U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, Graham DeLaet and Indiana native Bo Van Pelt, with Woods a stroke behind.

McIlroy and Woods pretty much spent the day trying to outdo each other, and so it was that when McIlroy hit his approach at the par-5 ninth (his finishing hole) to within easy birdie distance, Woods chipped in for his own birdie from just off the green.

Due to the FedEx Cup playoffs, McIlroy and Woods keep getting grouped together because of their position in the points standings. Contrived or not, it has worked out nicely for golf fans, who have for three straight weeks been blessed with golf's future and past, but two players who are very much the biggest part of the present.

"I think it definitely creates some more interest for the fans and for golf in general,'' McIlroy said. "I don't see any challenge in it; I mean, I think it's just good fun. It's good fun to be out there and have such an atmosphere and such a buzz around a grouping like that, and it's just nice to be a part of.''

They ate breakfast together Wednesday morning, bumped into each other in the media center after their pro-am rounds, managed to poke fun at one another, and were mostly all smiles during the first round of the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick. Afterward, they yukked it up together for a TV interview.

It helps when you are playing well, as both did on a warm, humid day with a water-softened course in the opening round of the third of four FedEx playoff events.

But in the bigger picture, this is great for the game. And it's great for Woods. Nobody has dominated since Woods in 2009, when he won six times on the PGA Tour and also claimed the FedEx Cup. Only Jim Furyk managed three victories in 2010 and the third came at the 30-player Tour Championship in the last event. Last year nobody won more than twice, although Luke Donald had an amazing worldwide campaign that saw him claim the money title on both the PGA and European tours while earning the No. 1 ranking in the world.

But the game has always been built around superstars who win often, going back to Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Hogan to Palmer and Nicklaus and Watson and Woods.

Not only were they prolific winners, but they won majors and they had foils.

While the golf world craved a true rival for Woods while he ran up those 14 major titles through 2008, perhaps he will get one in a different form. Not in the Jack-Arnie sense, or even the Nicklaus-Watson variety -- although head-to-head duels in majors would be more than welcome.

No, it's more about providing a different reason to pursue greatness. He would never admit it, but surely there are times that Woods finds this whole thing mundane. He's been doing it at a high level for the better part of two decades. Life has changed, and we're not just talking about his personal turmoil.

Inevitably even the greatest focus on new things. Going over the $100 million mark last week in career PGA Tour earnings certainly had to give Woods pause.

"The wins are fantastic, but the losses aren't what they used to be, because I get to talk to my kids at night,'' he said. "It puts things in a proper perspective for sure.''

McIlroy is not just being nice when he says he expects to see Woods competing in more majors. As much as they have played together of late, it wasn't until earlier this year in Abu Dhabi that the duo actually played competitive rounds together in an official tournament.

They played a nine-hole practice round together and then were grouped during the first two rounds of the Middle East tournament. McIlroy, who finished second that week, a shot ahead of Woods, was amazed then how much Woods' game had flourished after injuries ruined his 2011 season.

"After seeing that performance there, I expected some great things from him this year, and obviously he's won three times,'' McIlroy said. "He's played well. He's had his chances in the majors going into the weekends and it just hasn't happened for him.

"But for sure he's going to keep putting himself up there in position, and he's going to have a lot of chances to win tournaments and majors.''

McIlroy admitted to being in awe of Woods the first time they played together at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge, an unofficial event that Woods hosts. Look how far they've both come since then. McIlroy has those two majors and Woods is in the mix with him in the world rankings at No. 3, behind Donald.

But clearly that fear factor for McIlroy is gone.

"The more I've played with him, obviously the more comfortable I've been, and I think that's [showed] the last few weeks,'' he said.

That doesn't make the quest any easier for Woods. But having McIlroy in the picture, a superstar in the making at age 23, provides that extra dose of purpose. And the game can only benefit.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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