The 'next big thing': Didn't think a Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy rivalry could happen? Think again

Dan Wetzel

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ever since Tiger Woods smashed his Cadillac, personal life and golf swing into a fire hydrant in 2009, he told us he was back and fine and same as ever, both physically and personally.

He wasn't.

Ever since Rory McIlroy hit his tee shot last year into a heretofore-unknown cabin to start an epic back-nine collapse that cost him a Masters he'd dominated, he said the same thing.

And then he immediately proved it. First by laughing it all off. Once by crying with his mother. Eventually, by tearing up the U.S. Open last June.

Maybe it's McIlroy's youth, age 22. Maybe it's his Irish temperament. Maybe it's that it was just golf and, as embarrassing as it was he notes that, "as golfers, we lose more than we win."

McIlroy bounced back immediately and that isn't always the case. In 1979 here at Augusta, Ed Sneed fell apart on the final three holes, lost the Masters and, "you never, ever heard of Ed Sneed again," Gary Player said Tuesday. "He never won again."

For a stretch it looked like Tiger might follow that path. He took forever to come back, not winning a single official tour event until two weeks ago at Bay Hill and not even remotely approaching his occasionally engaging self in public.

At least until Tuesday.

Over a couple hours here, both Tiger and Rory held court with the press and neither did anything to temper the enthusiasm that they were on top of their games and this week could set up as a duel between the two.

"I'm here for the green jacket," Woods said.

"[I'm] looking forward to try and win this thing," McIlroy said.

Talk is cheap at Augusta, but this was more of a show-don't-tell event.

McIlroy is so easy-going, so self-deprecating that he had no problem boldly and directly addressing his famed Sunday afternoon meltdown of a year ago, where his historically horrendous tee shot on 10 that set up a crippling triple bogey is the enduring memory of the event. The spot has become an unlikely landmark, with fans taking turns snapping pictures on the unhallowed grounds during Tuesday's practice round.

"I can't believe how close the cabins are, they are only 50 yards off the tee," McIlroy joked.

"You know, it's great to be able to laugh about it."

Woods never seemed capable of laughing the past few years. He would earnestly claim he was fine, that his game was back, that he never felt better, that he was physically loose and mentally tight.

He usually did it through clenched jaws, forced smiles and carefully chosen words. And then he'd hit it all over the course. It could be painful to watch.

Tuesday was different. Tiger will never be the gregarious McIlroy, but one is Irish, from a culture of storytellers, the other the son of a Green Beret, where discipline is paramount.

[ Eric Adelson: Tiger Woods needs to win a major to prove he's 'back' ]

Tiger was back to being himself though, which can be pretty charismatic. He smiled a lot. He made some cracks about being, at 36, the old guy. He teased himself for not being able to hit it as far as the kids.

He even, unprompted, told a story about having Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer drag him into a money game during a practice round here in 1995, when he was just a college-kid amateur, the kind of tale he'd rarely have offered post-crash.

"Arnold comes up to me and says, 'How about a little skins game today,' " Tiger recalled.

"I said, 'Well, I don't have any cash.'

"He says, "Don't worry about it.' "

Tiger laughed at his naïveté. Both that the old millionaires were going to demand a collection from a then 19-year-old Stanford sophomore and the fact he marveled that Jack and Arnie could circumvent set tee times and basically had the run of a place that seemed so strict and serious.

"I said, 'Well, Jack … my tee time is much later.'

"[Nicklaus said], 'Just come with me.' "

" 'Yes, sir. How are we going to get on there?'

"He says, 'Don't worry about it.' We walk over there [and] we are on deck, just out of the blue. [I'm thinking], 'OK, this is nice.' "

[ Also: Rory McIlroy tries to put 2011 Masters collapse behind him ]

Even in his toughest moments, Tiger has been a contender here. He finished fourth under unimaginable pressure in 2010, his first tournament since his marriage and reputation unraveled, with mocking banners being tugged from airplanes circling the course. He matched it last year during a stretch when his game remained a mess everywhere else.

So now that he's won again, everyone wants to see if he can break his nearly four-year major drought and get back to making a real push on Nicklaus' record 18 majors, Tiger's stated career goal.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has apparently put his Augusta National demons to rest by going 16-under par to run away with the U.S. Open at Congressional. Last month he held off a charging Woods at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach to move (temporarily) to No. 1 in the world.

He is so relaxed here this week he joked about his worst moments. "It's only golf, no one died out there last Sunday." He even got caught with a cell phone in his pocket, an Augusta National rules violation.

"Oh, sorry, phone's going," McIlroy said sheepishly as it began to beep. "No phones at Augusta."

"We didn't hear anything," said Ronald Townsend, a member that was running his press conference, letting the kid off the hook.

For 22, McIlroy doesn't lack comfort in his own skin, something Woods couldn't seem to find until the last couple of weeks.

"You don't win 14 majors and 70-odd PGA Tour events for nothing, you know," McIlroy said of Woods. "People are very quick to build players up, and they are very quick to knock them back down.

"And, you know, people have very short memories."

Woods saw it the same way in reverse.

"It was cool to see someone learn from their mistakes like that and apply it," Woods said of McIlroy. "You know, he was playing so well, and so be it. He just had one bad round. It happens to everybody. He learned from it, applied it and ran away with it. That was some pretty impressive playing at the Open."

One remains the Big Thing in golf, no matter his slump, and is looking for a fifth green jacket and a renewed surge at Nicklaus. The other remains the Next Big Thing, poised to capture what everyone predicts will be his first bit of glory here.

Everyone's talking Tiger and Rory and after a Tuesday where they both talked themselves, it sounds like a week of recovery and redemption, getting past and moving forward, a new rivalry here at this grand old stage.

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