Talk of budding rivalry downplayed

Updated: January 16, 2013, 12:01 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- They are the big draws, the top-two ranked players in the field and scheduled to play together during the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

But both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy downplayed talk of a budding rivalry as the 2013 season is set to begin at a European Tour event in the Middle East.

Woods and McIlroy will tee off at 10:40 p.m. ET Wednesday (7:40 a.m. local time Thursday) and at 3:05 a.m. ET Friday (12:05 p.m. local time). They will be joined by European Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer, who has won this tournament three times.

Ever since they played their first official tournament rounds together here a year ago at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, there has been talk of heightened competition between Woods and McIlroy, especially as they were grouped together several more times throughout the year, and twice squared off in exhibitions.

But they've never gone head-to-head down the stretch of a tournament, meaning the rivalry has really yet to occur.

"I absolutely agree with that," Woods said after an early-morning 9-hole practice round. "It would be very similar to saying that I had a rivalry with Phil (Mickelson) two years into my career. That wasn't the case. It takes time.

"Over the course of my career, I've gone head-to-head against Ernie (Els) and Vijay (Singh) the most. That's happened over 16, 17 years and we've been going at it like that. But it takes time.

"I think we (McIlroy) have done it once at Honda (Classic), BMW a little bit, but we really haven't had the amount of matches that are head-to-head duels that I've had with Phil and Vijay and Ernie. But then again, it's only been a few years, so let's just give it time and see how it pans out.''

Woods, 37, and McIlroy, 23, were grouped together eight times in 2012, including the first three rounds in Abu Dhabi, with Woods shooting the lower score six times. But in five of those events, McIlroy had the lower 72-hole score and came away with the only victory in a tournament in which they played -- at the BMW Championship in September, where Woods tied for fourth. (McIlroy finished second here a year ago; Woods tied for third, two strokes behind winner Robert Rock.)

McIlroy also became the first player to win four times in a season in which Woods was entered in all of the events. The previous best was three by Singh in 2004, the year he won nine times. Mickelson has the most victories of any player overall with Woods in the field, 15. Singh has 13.

For his part, McIlroy is not too caught up in any of those numbers. It has been a dizzying couple of days, capped by the announcement Monday night that he had signed with Nike and would be playing with the company's clubs for the first time in competition this week.

"It's been great to get to know him," said McIlroy, who has purchased a home not far from Woods' in South Florida. "Before this time last year, we would say hello in passing but not really anything else. I think once Tiger sort of gets to know you and trusts you and lets you in, then it's great. We get on really well. We share some of the same interests, both big sports fans and that's sort of the bulk of our conversations."

McIlroy has vowed to cut back on his schedule this year, which is why this is a brief beginning to 2013. He won't play again until the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the end of February. Woods is making his PGA Tour debut next week at the Farmers Insurance Open, then is not expected to play again until the Match Play.

He has a big lead over Woods in the world rankings, something the former No. 1 said is not a big concern.

"I would like to just win golf tournaments," Woods said. "The rankings take care of themselves by winning golf tournaments."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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