Commentary

After 66, Tiger quiets intimidation talk

Originally Published: September 20, 2012
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- So much for being intimidated.

Tiger Woods has a relatively new adversary in Rory McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked player in the world. McIlroy clearly has the skills and talent to make life on the golf course more difficult for Woods.

But for the sixth time in their eight head-to-head meetings, Woods got the better of McIlroy on Thursday at East Lake Golf Club.

Of course, one round does not make a tournament, and there are 28 other players in the field. But Woods' 4-under-par 66 in the opening-round of the Tour Championship was better than all but one player, Justin Rose.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Kevin Liles/US PresswireTiger Woods bested all but one player Thursday in Round 1 of the Tour Championship at East Lake. Woods' co-leader -- Justin Rose -- will be paired with Tiger in Round 2 on Friday.

And it was with McIlroy again by Woods' side, the fifth round they've played together during the FedEx Cup playoffs. McIlroy shot 69.

"I enjoy playing with Rory,'' Woods said, who shares the Round 1 lead with Rose. "He's a great kid. Over the years there are certain pairings for me that I've enjoyed, and Rory is one of them.''

Australian golf legend Greg Norman caused some angst earlier this week when he said in an interview with FoxSports.com that he believed Woods was intimidated by McIlroy, who has won four times this year on the PGA Tour, including the PGA Championship and the past two FedEx Cup playoff events.

It was an interesting comment from Norman, who was ranked No. 1 in the world for a longer period than any player in history but Woods. The two-time major winner has obviously seen the talents on display by McIlroy, 23, coupled with some of Woods' struggles -- although the No. 2 player in the world has won three times this year.

But Norman must have missed the part where Woods and McIlroy seemingly get on so well together. That's different than Woods and some of his other rivals over the years, players he seemed to keep at arm's length both inside and outside of the ropes.

While there was less banter during the opening round of the final FedEx Cup playoff event, Woods and McIlroy still managed to share a few laughs before the biggest galleries on the course.

"I always say groupings like that, it's a great atmosphere, it's a great buzz, and I wish I could have shot a couple shots better,'' McIlroy said. "But I'm in good position going into tomorrow. I'll just go out there and give it my best again like I did today.''

At stake is the Tour Championship crown as well as the FedEx Cup title. If either Woods or McIlroy wins the tournament, he also wins the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus. Rose, who is 24th in the FedEx Cup standings, would need to win and have McIlroy finish 17th or worse (he is currently tied for 12th), Woods end up in a three-way tie for fifth or worse and several other scenarios to occur in order to claim the top prize.

Woods and McIlroy control their own destiny -- as do Phil Mickelson (T-12), Nick Watney (30th) and Brandt Snedeker (T-7).

The 30-player field, which boasts 21 of the top-22-ranked players in the world, was sent off according to FedEx Cup rank, putting Woods and McIlroy together for the fifth time since the start of the playoffs at The Barclays last month.

During that stretch, Woods has shot lower than McIlroy four of five times. That includes once during the BMW Championship, where McIlroy went on to win, and again Thursday, as Woods hit 13 of 18 greens in regulation and needed just 26 putts.

If you include the first three rounds they played together during the Abu Dhabi Championship in January on the European Tour, Woods has gotten the better of McIlroy in six of eight rounds in which they've been in the same group.

But McIlroy finished a shot ahead of Woods at the Abu Dhabi tournament (in second place as Woods tied for third), which is the ultimate goal.

Over the years, Jack Nicklaus said he sometimes became too concerned with Arnold Palmer if they were playing in the same group, while the rest of the tournament transpired around them. It is the same for Woods.

"I've done it a couple of times playing against Phil [Mickelson] and we've gotten run over,'' Woods said. "We were playing against each other and some guy gets off to a start ... and next thing you know we're 2 or 3 back. It's happened a couple of times where we just didn't have the leaderboards, so we don't really know what was going on. So it's happened.''

Woods didn't seem too concerned about any of that Thursday. It was the first round of a tournament he won in 2007 and where he also captured the FedEx Cup in 2009 -- the last time he made it to East Lake. He's also had a couple of runner-up finishes here.

"I've been playing well,'' Woods said. "Most of the summer, I've played well. I'm very pleased with the things that Sean [Foley, his coach] and I are working on, and it's just a continuation of it. It was nice to get that week off last week and get a little bit of rest. I felt fresh today.''

Friday means a pairing in the final group with Rose, who also works with Foley. Neither player figures to be intimidated in that twosome, either.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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