ATLANTA – It sounds strange, saying this about a 14-time major winner who's among the greatest athletes in American history, but we're about to find out what Tiger Woods is really made of.
As he prepares to challenge for the Tour Championship and the FedExCup at East Lake Golf Club, Woods finds himself in an unfamiliar position: eclipsed on the course and under unexpected scrutiny off it. The future of golf has arrived, and the past is rearing up and reassessing him. And how he handles both the challenge on the course and the sudden new perspectives off it will say much about how the rest of his still-very-viable career will go.
Most pressing, of course, is Woods' playing partner in Thursday's opening round: Rory McIlroy, who's without question the finest golfer on the planet right now. McIlroy, ranked a deserving No. 1, has won three of his last four PGA tournaments, including his second major at the PGA Championship. At the tender age of 23, he won his first two majors a few months quicker than Woods did. (Granted, Woods would have eight in his bag before his 27th birthday, but still.) It's McIlroy's game now, and while Woods remains the game's premier attraction, he's no longer its premier player.
Which is fine, of course; every player gives way to the next generation. Jack Nicklaus succeeded Arnold Palmer; Tom Watson succeeded Nicklaus; Greg Norman succeeded Watson; Woods succeeded Norman. But as Tiger begins his first steps into remember-when? status, some of the legends that preceded him are starting to take, well, let's not call them "shots," let's call them "new perspectives."
Earlier this week, Norman offered up his impressions of the now-full-flower Woods-McIlroy rivalry, and his assessment wasn't kind to Tiger. "What I'm seeing is that Tiger's really intimidated by Rory," he told Fox Sports. "When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never. But I think he knows his time's up and that's normal; these things tend to go in 15-year cycles."
You can't jab an athlete with any sharper blade than one engraved "time's up," and surely Norman knows this. But on Wednesday, neither Woods nor McIlroy took the bait.
"How can I intimidate Tiger Woods?" McIlroy said. "I mean, the guy's got 75 or 70-whatever [actually 74] PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. He's been the biggest thing ever in our sport. How could some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? I don't know where he got that from, but it's not true." (McIlroy is playing a wise game here; he did allow that he's never been intimidated by Woods, but more "in awe" of him.)
For his part, Woods dismissed the "intimidation" theory, first with a joke – "It's got to be the hair," he said – and then with a more reasoned take on why "intimidation" doesn't really work in golf:
"No one is the size of Ray Lewis who is going to hit me coming over the middle, so this is a different kind of sport," he explained. "This is about execution and going about your own business and see where it ends up at the end of the day. … Some individual sports, such as tennis, you actually can do that physically because you're playing against somebody. Here, no one is affecting any shots."
That's a bit disingenuous. Intimidation isn't about physical action, it's about threats, and in his prime, nobody was better at the mental game than Woods. He would occasionally attempt to "affect the shots" of his playing partners by, for instance, standing juuuust a bit too close to them on the green. But the point is taken: nobody's tackling any golfers, no matter how much fun that might be to see.
Another guy who knows a thing or two about mind games inside the ropes, Nicklaus, weighed in on Woods on Wednesday morning talking to an ESPN radio station in Washington, D.C. He laughed off Norman's comments ("Quiet, Greg, quiet. Down, boy") but noted that, indeed, this is a different world from the Tiger-stomping 2000s:
"During the couple of years when Tiger wasn't really there all of the sudden you have Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley and I could probably name a half dozen other guys that have all won and learned how to win in Tiger's absence," Nicklaus said. "They're not scared of him anymore. Before Tiger just showed up coming down the stretch, and everybody said, 'Oh, there's Tiger and I wilt.' They don't do that anymore."
Nicklaus did point out that Woods has plenty of time, and game, left to finish making his mark on the game, and perhaps even catch Nicklaus' record 18 majors. Nicklaus, after all, was 10 years older than Tiger is now when he won his 18th major, giving Woods (in theory) roughly 40 more majors to win four or five.
In the end, Woods will determine his fate on the course, the same way he rebounded from the scandals of nearly three years ago. In the meantime, he has little patience for the speculation. When asked his thoughts on the publicized rivalry, he answered with a curt, "I really don't care."
Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, he's still got chances to put the final touches on his legacy. But from here on out, he'll be battling McIlroy all the way down the line.
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