Woods, McIlroy face off in Abu Dhabi
The world's two top golfers are meeting more and more often on the course, but neither No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy nor Tiger Woods are ready to call it a rivalry.
The pair, set to play in the same group this week in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, have a friendly relationship since playing together for the first three rounds of last year's tournament. They are represented by Nike, and McIlroy has bought a house in Florida, where the second-ranked Woods lives.
For a more heated rivalry to emerge, they need to face each other on Sunday with a tournament at stake. It has yet to happen, although Woods did make a run at McIlroy last year in the Honda Classic with a birdie-eagle finish.
''It would be similar to saying that I had a rivalry with Phil (Mickelson) two years into my career. That wasn't the case. It takes time,'' Woods said on Tuesday.
''Over the course of my career, I've gone head-to-head against Ernie (Els) and Vijay (Singh) the most, and that has happened over 17 years. But it takes time. Certainly, we've done it once at Honda. . . . But we really haven't had the amount of matches or head-to-head duels I've had with Phil and Vijay and Ernie. But then again, it's only been a few years. Let's give it time and see how it pans out.''
''I don't know if you can call it a rivalry yet because we haven't battled each other down the stretch of a major,'' McIlroy said. ''It's not like we've been playing in the final group of a tournament and we are battling each other. Hopefully, at some point, that can happen this year. And it would be great to be part of that.''
During news conferences on Tuesday in advance of the tournament that begins Thursday, both heaped praised on the other's game. They said how much they enjoyed spending time together chatting about sports and, in the case of McIlroy, getting tips on better managing his time now that his off-course commitments are on the rise.
''We were right up there in the rankings, so we seemed to be getting paired together every week for a stretch there,'' Woods said. ''We've certainly hit it off, and our relationship has grown and our friendship's gotten better. ... We've just had a good time. Certainly give each other the needle quite a bit. That's always fun.''
McIlroy said the relationship in many ways is built on mutual respect.
''Before this time last year, we would say hello in passing but not really anything else. I think once Tiger sort of gets to know you and trusts you, I guess, and lets you in, then it's great,'' McIlroy said.
''It's great to just spend time with him and pick his brain about a few things if I feel I need to, but it's a relationship that's definitely based on respect, because you know, he's been a huge hero of mine growing up and he's done some incredible things in golf. I think he respects me for what I've done on the golf course, too. So it's good.''
But when it comes to the golf course, McIlroy joked that that the friendship would go out the window should that encounter take place.
''He is going to try and beat my brains out. I know that,'' McIlroy said. ''I'm trying to do the same. We are both trying to win a golf tournament.''
McIlroy comes into the year as the player to beat, having become No. 1 in the world ranking last year and won his second major. But Woods insisted that would have no bearing on how he approached the year.
''I would like to just win golf tournaments. The rankings take care of themselves by winning golf tournaments,'' he said of trying to regain the top spot. ''I was at one point, what was I, outside the top 50 or whatever it was, but I won three times last year and lo and behold, look where I'm at. It's about winning golf tournaments and being consistent. I think that over the course of my career, I've done a pretty good job of that, and would certainly like to continue doing that.''
Woods said had done little to change his game, after finishing his first full season without injury since 2006. He said he was excited to start the season and looking for a good start in Abu Dhabi after leading for three rounds in Abu Dhabi last year. He finished third.
"I worked on basically trying to refine what I was doing toward the end of last year. I thought my ball striking was good and my short game finally came around toward the end of last year. That was something I was excited about,'' Woods said. ''Basically, Sean (Foley) and I didn't reinvent a new swing. We were basically out there refining what we have been working on for the past two years, just going out and hitting balls and getting the reps in, and then started playing quite a bit toward the end.''
McIlroy played down his status as the favorite, insisting the ranking will not change the way he approaches the tournament this week.
''I've always had high expectations of myself, and every time I come into a tournament, I want to feel like I have a chance to win,'' he said. ''And if people think I have more of a chance to win than anyone else, that's fine. But I know that I'm going to have to play really good golf this week to have a chance and that's what I want to try and do. It's no different; I'll try and approach every week the same way.''