Woods, McIlroy paired at Tour Championship
Just when the FedEx Cup was teetering on irrelevance in the sports-saturated month of September, along comes Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Greg Norman.
As they prepared this week for the Tour Championship, the final event in the FedEx Cup playoffs, the hot topic was the budding rivalry between Woods, who has won three tournaments this year, and McIlroy, who has won three in the last six weeks.
On Tuesday, two-time major champion Norman threw kerosene on the debate, saying Woods was intimidated by the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland.
- Kevin Dunleavy
|Where »||East Lake Golf Club,||Atlanta|
|Five to Watch|
|After top fives in the last two events, watch out for Lefty, the forgotten man in the Rory McIlroy-Tiger Woods lovefest, who has been renewed by the claw putting grip. It would be the first FedEx Cup for Mickelson and salvage an indifferent season in which he failed to contend in the final three majors.|
|With players from America and Europe perhaps looking ahead to next week's Ryder Cup competition, this might be an opportunity for Australian Scott. He has rebounded nicely from his British Open collapse, placing 11th at the PGA and finishing in the top seven the last two playoff events.|
|Other than McIlroy, he's the hottest player on tour. Johnson has placed in the top five in all three FedEx Cup events. Despite a back injury that hampered him through the first half of the year, he missed only one cut (U.S. Open) in 18 events. His last playoff win came at the hurricane-shortened Barclays in 2011.|
|This event is made to order for Westwood, who has never won a major but has won just about everything else. He's tied for second in the last FedEx Cup event. Like McIlroy, this is his first go-round in the FedEx Cup playoffs as he moves this year from Great Britain to West Palm Beach, Florida.|
|He had enough FedEx Cup points that he was able to skip an event (Deutsche Bank). In back-to-back tournaments last month, the Spaniard won the Wyndham and tied for third in the playoff-opening Barclays. He's had bad timing this year as his only missed cuts were at the British Open and PGA.|
"I think he knows his time is up," Norman told FoxSports.com. "These things go in 15-year cycles. Jack [Nicklaus] took it from Arnold [Palmer]. I took it from Jack. Tiger took it from me. And now it looks like Rory's taking it from Tiger."
Wednesday in Atlanta, McIlroy and Woods had their say, as well as the last laugh.
"[Tiger]'s got a new nickname for me," McIlroy told reporters. "He calls me 'The Intimidator.'?"
"It's got to be the hair," Woods added about McIlroy's curly brown locks.
McIlroy's effect on Woods has become relevant in the last two months. At the PGA Championship, where McIlroy won by eight strokes, Woods was tied for the lead after two rounds but was 13 strokes worse on the weekend. At the Deutsche Bank Championship, McIlroy beat Louis Oosthuizen by one shot and Woods by two. At the BMW, McIlroy beat Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood by two shots each and Woods by three.
McIlroy rejects the notion that he is winning because of a mental edge on the 36-year-old Woods.
"How can I intimidate Tiger Woods? I mean, the guy's got  PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. He's been the biggest thing ever in our sport," McIlroy said. "How could some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? It's just not possible."
Woods was just as dismissive of Norman's suggestion that he is intimidated.
"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," Woods said. "We go out there, and we play our own game. And see where it falls at the end of the day."
Because they are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the FedEx Cup points, McIlroy and Woods will tee off together on Thursday in the final twosome. They have been paired twice at the Barclays and once at the BMW, adding spice and interest to the FedEx Cup. Over that time they have seemingly become close. Their public comments about each other have been gracious, a courtesy that Woods hasn't always extended to his rivals.
"Every time that we get paired up, I'm obviously very excited for it," McIlroy said. "It's still a great thing for me. You'll have to ask him if he feels the same way. But for me it's very exciting, and I'm looking forward to that first tee on Thursday."