“You could see out there today, he’s definitely not intimidated by me,” Rory McIlroy said Thursday.
Playing alongside the world No. 1, Woods shot a smooth 4-under 66 to tie for the lead at the FedEx Cup finale, the Tour Championship at East Lake.
McIlroy, meanwhile, looked rusty from the outset, pulling an iron and stubbing a chip on the first to make the softest of bogeys and set the tone for the day. He needed to hole some big putts to shoot 69, leaving him in a tie for 12th in the 30-man field.
Despite Greg Norman’s assertion to me that Woods is intimidated by McIlroy, the fact is that he’s now beaten the young Northern Irishman in six of their eight rounds together this year.
“I enjoy playing with Rory,” Woods said. “He’s a great kid. Over the years there are certain pairings for me that I’ve enjoyed, and Rory is one of them.”
McIlroy said much the same about playing again with Woods, but he knows he’s going to need to find the juggernaut who’s won three of four tournaments stretching back to the PGA Championship if he’s going to claim the $10 million bonus at stake.
“If you don’t hit fairways, it’s hard,” he said.
Woods, meanwhile, played very nicely, indeed. Gone was the violence that often creeps into his swing, especially with the short irons, which have been a weakness this year. He made smooth passes at the ball for much of the day and reaped the benefits on East Lake’s slick, nuanced greens, needing only 26 putts.
“I hit a lot of good shots,” he said. “Made a few puts out there, but I had a couple of good up-and-downs, which is nice.”
The short game, which has been a work in progress for much of the year, was sharp on a pleasant afternoon in Georgia. He chipped in for one of his six birdies, and on the treacherous par-3 sixth, where Woods bailed out into the left bunker with water on the right, he nipped a sand shot that stopped within a few feet of the hole. Bubba Watson and Nick Watney before him couldn’t stop their shots from that bunker closer than 15 feet.
None of it seemed like it came as much of a surprise to Woods, who had the look of a man who feels very comfortable with his game.
“I’ve been playing well, you know, most of the summer,” he said. “I’m very pleased with the things that Sean (Foley, his swing coach) and I are working on, and it’s just a continuation of it.
“It was nice to get that week off last week and get a little bit of rest. I felt fresh today.”
It didn’t hurt Woods, who likes to play fast, that with only 30 in the field, he and McIlroy went off last and still played in 3 hours, 45 minutes.
“It’s so nice to be able to play like this,” he said. “We wish every tournament had this kind of pace of play. No one enjoys playing six hours.”
Woods also shone a light into his behind-the-scenes life on the PGA Tour when he was asked if he and McIlroy get along because McIlroy’s not afraid to rib him.
“A lot of guys are like that; he’s not the only one,” Woods said. “You probably don’t believe this, but I get along well with a lot of guys out here. I give it, they dish it, we have a great time.
“This is a fraternity out here. That’s one of the great things about being out here for 17 years: You get to know the guys quite well.”
And with that, Woods left East Lake with a sense of satisfaction.
“It was a really good day,” he said with a parting smile.
But they don’t hand out trophies or prize money on Thursdays. Woods has his work cut out for him over the next three days. And it’s not like McIlroy’s going away.