(PhatzRadio / Golf.com) — FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — In the last three years on the PGA TOUR, Rory McIlroy has been paired with Phil Mickelson eight times. Steve Stricker for seven times. Bubba Watson for six times. His Irish buddy Graeme McDowell five times.
McIlroy’s had multiple pairings with Luke Donald, Keegan Bradley, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler. He even spent two rounds with a playing partner who was much older (Tom Watson) and one who was slightly younger (Ryo Ishikawa).
But when it comes to official PGA TOUR events — of which McIlroy has made 50 starts — he has never played a single round with his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods.
That changes Thursday when this year’s FedExCup Playoffs begin at The Barclays. With players grouped together via their FedExCup rankings in the first two rounds, No. 3 McIlroy, age 23, will play with No. 1 Woods, age 36, for the first time at a TOUR event. Tee time is set for 8:16 a.m. ET at the Bethpage State Park Black Course.
“I’m looking forward to it,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “I really enjoy his company. I know we’ll have a good time out there.”
In fact, the good times actually started while McIlroy was speaking to the media. Standing in the back of the room, waiting for his turn to speak, was Woods.
As McIlroy eyed Woods, he was asked a question about a potential Ryder Cup singles matchup at Medinah next month after the Playoffs end.
Joked McIlroy: “I’d love Tiger to go out first and kick his ass.”
Tiger immediately shot back: “Good to see you too.”
Of course, no need to wait, as the first two rounds of what should be one of golf’s most intriguing duels for the next several years begins on Thursday. At Bethpage, it’ll be the FedExCup No. 1 vs. the World No. 1.
“It’s going to be fun for both of us,” Woods said. “I enjoy playing with Rory and I hope he feels the same way about being in the same group with me.”
The PGA TOUR enters the first week of the FedExCup Playoffs at The Barclays. The field will then be cut to the top 100 players in the standings for next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship. Here are the top five players this week:
1 Tiger Woods
2 Jason Dufner
3 Rory McIlroy
4 Zach Johnson
5 Bubba Watson
Zach Johnson, No. 4 in FedExCup points, is the other part of that threesome. He wouldn’t normally be in that position, but No. 3 Jason Dufner is taking a break this week, providing Johnson an up-close view of McIlroy-Woods. Not that he wants to be upstaged.
“I’m just hoping my boring golf kind of gets in the way,” Johnson cracked.
Although they’ve never been officially paired together at a TOUR event, McIlroy and Woods have spent time together on a golf course. At Tiger’s Chevron World Challenge in 2010, they were paired in the second round. Tiger shot 66, while McIlroy shot 70.
Then at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship earlier this year, they were in the same group for the first three rounds, with Woods (70-69-66) needing two less strokes than McIlroy (67-72-68).
The encounters have been limited, but McIlroy knows there’s a difference when being paired with Woods.
“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.”
As McIlroy showed two weeks ago at the PGA Championship, when he’s at his best, he’s difficult to beat. His eight-stroke win at Kiawah Island matched his eight-stroke win the year before in the U.S. Open at Congressional.
Because of those two major wins (and nearly a third at the 2011 Masters before his final-round meltdown), McIlroy is now being positioned as the potential heir apparent to Woods, who has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open.
Certainly when you hear Woods discuss McIlroy’s ability to run away from the field, it’s easy to think back to Tiger’s own dominating victories at the 1997 Masters (by 12 strokes) and the 2000 U.S. Open (15 strokes), two of his first three major wins en route to his current total of 14.
“Rory has that ability once he gets going, he just makes birdie after birdie after birdie,” Woods said. “Not afraid to keep trying to push it, to try to shoot lower scores.”
In the Woods-McIlroy dynamic, it’s worth noting that Tiger is the older player, by 13 years no less. As Woods pointed out Wednesday, for the majority of his career, he was always the younger dynamo going up against more experienced stars such as Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.
Now the roles are reversed. Woods is where he wants to be, “part of the conversation” that has set the bar for the younger generation. That’s one of the things Woods admired about his own idol, Jack Nicklaus.
“He crossed generations,” Woods said, “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 … I’ve been doing it for a while. Hopefully I can continue doing it.”
McIlroy, however, has been adamant that he’s not interested in being part of any rivalry discussion with Woods. Unlike Woods, there are no stated goals of trying to beat Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. He just wants to win, and let history add up the numbers at the end of the day.
“I’ve always said, the players don’t build up rivalries themselves; people from the outside build up the rivalries,” McIlroy said. “I just want to play good golf.”
No doubt, though, McIlroy understands respect, especially when it comes to his idol.
On Wednesday, instead of walking out the side exit door after completing his news conference, McIlroy waited for Woods to approach the front. He then made sure to slap hands, a gentlemanly greeting — at least for this generation — between two of golf’s biggest names.
On Thursday, though, you can expect the game faces to be worn.