Henny Ray Abrams/Associated Press
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – The message from Jack Nicklaus still resonates with Tiger Woods.
They were chatting during a practice round at the Presidents Cup nine years ago in South Africa when the topic turned to the various rivals Nicklaus faced over a 25-year stretch of winning majors. Nicklaus told him that day, “Just make sure you’re always part of the conversation.”
Woods was reminded of that chat Wednesday at The Barclays, when he stood in the back of the room as PGA champion Rory McIlroy finished up his interview.
McIlroy is his latest rival. It’s the first time Woods has faced a serious challenger who was younger than him.
“I always wanted to be part of that conversation,” Woods said after his pro-am round at Bethpage Black. “That’s the neat thing about what Jack had done. He crossed generations, and when you’re a part of that conversation for the better part of 25 years, that’s saying something. I was kind of hoping when I started off my career I’d be part of that conversation for that length of time.”
McIlroy, coming off an eight-shot win at Kiawah Island for his second major, considers it a compliment that he would be mentioned alongside Woods, and he is respectful of everything Woods has accomplished in 17 incomparable years on the PGA Tour.
But the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland can have a little fun.
Woods and McIlroy will be playing together the opening two rounds of The Barclays because the tour groups players based on their FedEx Cup standings during the playoffs. Woods is No. 1 for the fourth time in the six-year history of this series, while McIlroy is No. 3. Zach Johnson will be along for the ride.
McIlroy was asked if he looked forward to playing with Woods, and how much he would love to face him next month in Sunday singles in the Ryder Cup at Medinah.
“It really focuses you from the get-go, a pairing like that,” he said. “I feel every time I’ve played with Tiger, he’s sort of brought the best out of me. I really feel focused and obviously want to play well. I’m looking forward to it. I really enjoy his company. I know we’ll have a good time out there.”
About that point, he noticed Woods had come into the room and was waiting by the back door.
“I’m keeping him waiting here,” McIlroy said. “So I’ll stop talking about him.”
Not so fast.
About that singles match at the Ryder Cup everyone would love to see?
“Yeah, I’d love to go out there,” McIlroy said. “I’d love Tiger to go out first and kick his (behind).”
Woods joined in the spontaneous laughter. McIlroy finished up his interview a few minutes later, and as he moved away from the table, he waited by the door until Woods walked by, then they slapped hands. If a rivalry blossoms, all indications are it will be a friendly one.
There was a tense moment two years ago, when Woods’ game was at its lowest level, and McIlroy was quoted as saying he would love to face Woods in the Ryder Cup unless his game rapidly improved.
Woods was coming off the highest score of his professional career.
It was reminiscent of when Stephen Ames poked fun of Woods’ accuracy before they faced each other in the first round of the Match Play Championship. Woods won, 9 and 8.
This was different. Woods’ initial reaction to the comment was, “At least Rory said, ‘Unless my game improves.’” They didn’t play each other that week in Wales.
Now, the anticipation is building for the first round Thursday at Bethpage Black, where Woods won the U.S. Open in 2002 and tied for sixth when it last came to Long Island during a rainy week in 2009.
The Black doesn’t need to have a U.S. Open to be a tough test. The greens are not as firm. The rough is not as dense, though it still should be avoided.
Woods and McIlroy in the same group has taken focus away from the start of these playoffs. The top 100 in the standings advance to the second round at the Deutsche Bank Championship, then the top 70 move on to the BMW Championship. The top 30 reach the FedEx Cup finale at the Tour Championship, and the winner gets $10 million, the richest payoff in golf.
There are sure to be a few long shots who advance, like Heath Slocum three years ago when he won The Barclays. Some guys might not make it out of the first round.
For now, there are only Tiger and Rory.
“He’s a great kid, and it’s great to be around him,” Woods said. “What an amazing talent he really is. I just hope that everyone just lets him grow and develop as a player because it’s going to be fun to see over the next 20 years how this kid’s career is going to pan out.”
From the time he turned pro, Woods had a revolving door of rivals – Ernie Els, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh. None of them lasted very long. What makes McIlroy more compelling as a rival is that he is a generation younger.
In recent history, those rivalries turn out the best. Nicklaus was 10 years younger than Arnold Palmer when they battled at the U.S. Opens and Masters. Nicklaus was 10 years older than Tom Watson when Watson got him at the Masters and British Open.
By winning the PGA Championship, McIlroy collected his second major at a slightly younger age than Woods. More significantly, however, is that McIlroy twice has won majors by blowing away the field by eight shots. In the last 35 years, only Woods had won a major by that many shots (three times).
McIlroy headed out to get some lunch and go to the practice range, and Woods took his spot behind the table for his interview. He talked about being back at Bethpage, which plays to a par 71 this week, and the busy stretch of four playoff events, capped off by the Ryder Cup.
And he was reminded of what McIlroy said about Medinah, and whether he was ready to take a beating from Boy Wonder in the Ryder Cup.
Woods leaned toward the microphone, smiled and said, “No.”