Predictably, Tiger Woods resorted to humor to defuse Greg Norman’s bombshell assertion that he’s “really intimidated” by Rory McIlroy.
And neither did it serve McIlroy to weigh in too earnestly on what is a sensitive subject for a young man who’s both growing closer to, and rapidly eclipsing, his boyhood idol.
Woods was quick to greet golf’s crown prince, to whom he’s taken quite a liking, at East Lake, venue of this week’s Tour Championship on Wednesday morning.
“He’s got a new nickname for me, actually,” McIlroy said. “He calls me The Intimidator.”
Norman’s contentious characterization of the dynamic between the world’s two best players — that McIlroy has overtaken the 36-year-old Woods — has caused ripples throughout the golfing world.
“What I’m seeing is that Tiger’s really intimidated by Rory,” Norman told me. “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.”
When journalists grilled him about Norman’s observations, Woods joked that “it’s got to be the hair” — a jab at his receding hairline juxtaposed with the mop of curls sported by the 23-year-old Northern Irishman.
Pressed further, Woods went on to spout the line he has always used when asked about the intimidation factor many maintained he had at his peak.
"No, 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."
McIlroy was a little more bemused by the idea.
"Now, how can I intimidate Tiger Woods?” he asked. “I mean, the guy’s got 75 or 70-whatever PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. I mean, 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? It’s just not possible.”
Perhaps it’s not likely, but is it really not possible?
McIlroy has won two majors in a 14-month span, both by eight shots. Woods hasn’t won a major since June 2008. He hasn’t won a major by as many as eight shots since the 2000 British Open at St Andrews.
And McIlroy’s won three of his past four starts — including the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island — with Woods not only in the field, but in the hunt.
Remember, too, that earlier this year, after Woods fired a stunning Sunday 62 at the Honda Classic, McIlroy kept his head and went on to win.
None of that has been lost on McIlroy.
“It is a great feeling to be able to hold off the best players in the world,” he said.
“(Woods) came charging on me at the Honda this year, and I was able to hang on and win there. At the Deutsche Bank, he was in the group ahead of us and making a run. Not so much last week at the BMW, he was a little far behind.
“But you look at the leaderboards the last few weeks and you see all the great names and top players on those leaderboards, and to be able to come out on top in recent weeks is, obviously, very satisfying.”
As the two top ranked players in the FedEx Cup race, they have been paired for the first two rounds of three straight tournaments — and will be again this week at the finale — so Woods has seen McIlroy’s game up close.
McIlroy’s as friendly a young star as exists in the sporting world, so he’s not likely to personally intimidate Woods.
But could it be, as Norman maintains, that Woods is just a little unsettled at seeing a game that’s at least as good as his, if not better?
Although Woods’ many other rivals have beaten him on their day, he always has taken comfort in the fact that more times than not, he’s had their number.
From Ernie Els, whose spirit never really recovered from being the victim of one Woods improbable putt after another, to Sergio Garcia, whose charge never materialized, to David Duval to Vijay Singh and the inconsistent Phil Mickelson, Woods knows he has been better than any of them.
But can he say that about McIlroy, who’s not just hitting the ball as anyone in the game but holing all kinds of putts, over the past year or so?
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus doesn’t believe that Woods’ days are over, but he acknowledged that the landscape’s changed in golf.
"Tiger has a lot of wins left in him, (but) he does have a lot more competition," he said during an interview on ESPN 980 radio in Washington DC. "(Woods’ peers) are 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.
"Tiger’s got his work cut out for him, but I don’t think Tiger is, by any means, finished."
It was interesting to hear McIlroy’s response when he was asked whether he wanted to face Woods in the singles at next week’s Ryder Cup in Chicago.
He said all the right things about doing what’s in the best interests of the team, but then he couldn’t help himself.
“I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said, “Because I would.”