AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They are friends, they are South Florida neighbors and they are the best two players on the planet these days, at least according to the world golf rankings. But Rory McIlroy, No. 2 to No. 1 Tiger Woods, insisted Tuesday that he does not consider Woods his rival.
“No, not at all,” McIlroy said two days before the start of the 77th Masters on Thursday. “I don’t see myself a rival to Tiger or to anyone. Tiger has been on Tour for 12 more years than me, or something like that. When you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success. He’s got 77 PGA Tour [victories]. I’ve got six. He’s got 14 majors. I’ve got two. If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn’t really be doing him much justice.”
A few hours later, Woods had a slightly different view.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve had a few [rivals],” Woods said. “Certainly, Rory is this generation. I’ve had Phil [Mickelson] and Vijay [Singh] and Ernie [Els] and David [Duval] for a number of years, and now Rory’s the leading one of this new, younger generation.”
Asked about the possibility of going head-to-head with McIlroy down the stretch Sunday, he added, “I’d like to be there first, and we’ll figure out who else is there, as well. But my main responsibility is to get there and then be part of that mix.”
Still, in the eyes of the golfing public, not to mention the ratings-conscious suits at CBS, Woods versus McIlroy down the back nine late Sunday afternoon would be too good to be true, even if it now seems they both are making all the right moves with their respective games.
Woods has not won a Masters since 2005, when he captured his fourth, and said he was “obviously not real happy with the fact that I haven’t won more. ... I put myself in the mix every year but last year [when he finished tied for 40th, his worst showing as a professional]. That’s the misleading part. It’s not like I’ve been out of there with no chance of winning this championship. I’ve been there and just unfortunately haven’t gotten it done.”
Indeed, from 2006 through the 2011 tournament, Woods tied for third, was second twice, tied for sixth and tied for fourth twice.
Considering that he has three victories in his five appearances on the PGA Tour this season, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks ago, and six wins in his past 20 starts in the last 12 months, he is clearly the odds-on favorite to add a fifth green jacket Sunday.
Woods also sounded extremely confident in achieving that heady accomplishment, just the way he used to back in the days when he was winning 14 majors, the last at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Since then, his life got far more complicated, including a well-documented scandal, divorce, injuries and a crisis of confidence that is now so much ancient history.
These days, his friends say they have never seen him happier. His game is back. He’s healthy. His swing seems grooved. His putting, thanks to a tip from his pal Steve Stricker at the Cadillac Championship at Doral last month, has improved dramatically. He’s courting a new girlfriend, American Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn, and he’s a blissfully doting father to his two young children.
McIlroy also seems to be in a far better frame of mind than the day six weeks ago when he walked off PGA National after eight holes in the second round of the Honda Classic. He claimed to be suffering from a sore wisdom tooth on an afternoon he also was going to miss the cut by a lot.
McIlroy said Tuesday he started to turn his game around at the Cadillac Championship the following week when he posted 65 on Sunday and tied for eighth, his best finish of the year to that point. He had another good showing last week at the Texas Open, when he shot 66 on Sunday and finished second, two strokes behind champion Martin Laird, who needed a stunning Sunday 63 to prevail.