Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy not there yet

DORAL, Fla. -- Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are a rivalry like Spam rivals caviar or a Vespa rivals a Harley. And anyway, how can it be a rivalry when McIlroy grew up in tiny Holywood, Northern Ireland, with a poster of Tiger taped to his bedroom wall?

McIlroy wanted to be Woods when he grew up. He was 7 when a 21-year-old Tiger gave Augusta National a wedgie in 1997, winning his first major by a dozen shots over the rest of the stun-gunned Masters field. A copy of that historic scorecard also found a place on little Rory's wall.

So enough already with the breathless post-Honda Classic attempts to invent a rivalry between these two. It isn't fair. It isn't real. And it might never be.

"I think it's more the media that build up the rivalries more than anything else," said McIlroy, the new No. 1 in the golf world rankings. "To be honest, in golf, you can have a rivalry if you want, but at the end of the day your biggest rival is the golf course. You've got to beat that. … If people want to say there's a rivalry, then so be it. But I don't see myself as anyone's rival out there. I just see myself as Rory McIlroy."

Chicago Bears versus Green Bay Packers? Duke versus North Carolina? Arnold Palmer versus Jack Nicklaus? Now those are/were actual rivalries. There is a body of work that stretches over years, decades.

A McIlroy-Woods rivalry, if you can even call it that, is in the larval stage. It barely exists. It is wishful thinking.

"Tiger doesn't have a rival," said Hunter Mahan, ranked No. 10 in the world. "Just look at the record. I mean, there is none. His rival is Jack Nicklaus. It's hard to put anyone up there right now with him."

Well said, sir.

Woods, with his 14 major wins, is chasing history and Nicklaus' record 18 major victories. McIlroy, who has a U.S. Open Championship on his business card and that world's No. 1, is chasing Tiger.

But that doesn't make it a rivalry. At least not yet, it doesn't.

Tom Watson won eight majors during his distinguished career. Nicklaus finished second to Watson in half of those victories. That's a rivalry.

Tiger finished second to McIlroy last week at Honda. He shot 62 -- the lowest final-round score of his career -- and still wound up two shots behind Rors.

But Honda isn't a major, it's a minor. Woods and McIlroy weren't even in the final pairing together. In fact, it's the first time Woods has ever ended up second to McIlroy in stroke play. That's not a rivalry.

"I understand [Woods'] last few years haven't been his best and everything that's going on, but that guy, he's had numbers that no one has even thought about reaching," Mahan said.

That's not exactly true. McIlroy has thought about those numbers -- not about necessarily surpassing them, but more about the majesty of them. He has the swing (drop-dead gorgeous), the disposition (George Clooney cool) and the age (23 in May) to make his own run at double-digit majors. But he doesn't need an adversary to make it happen. He doesn't need Woods.

"You compare what Rory's starting to do now at a very young age, it does have some similarities to what Tiger did," said Luke Donald, whom McIlroy unseated as world No. 1 on Sunday. "Obviously, their records are incomparable at the moment. Rory still has a ways to go."

But not as much as you think, said Padraig Harrington.

"He's won a major at a very young age, same as Tiger," Harrington said in a recent interview with Irish golf writer Brian Keogh. "He's got the game. Yeah, I think you could compare him to Tiger, no problem."

A rivalry needs more than comparison shopping. Woods hasn't won an official tour event since 2009. He hasn't won a major since 2008. Everything about him is being rebuilt, including his game.

But he's close. Very close. That T-2 and 62 a few days ago proves that. A win this week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship would confirm it.

McIlroy did admit to hearing the Tiger-generated roars as Woods took giant steps up the Honda leaderboard. You couldn't help but hear them -- they swept across the course like thunder. But McIlroy kept his composure, as well as the lead.

"To be honest, I was probably thinking to myself, 'Could it not just have been anyone else?'" McIlroy said.

It would be a gas if Woods and McIlroy end up in the final Sunday pairing here at Doral. And even better if they were tied for the lead as they stepped to the 18th tee box. But it wouldn't make it Arnie-Jack. Or even Tiger-Phil.

After all, Woods has McIlroy by 14 years. They come from different countries, different backgrounds, different everything.

Right now, this is a non-rivalry rivalry. Woods likes McIlroy. Respects him. He gushed about him earlier in the year at Abu Dhabi. So a friendly rivalry is about the best anyone can hope for.

"I've never said that I want to be the next anyone," McIlroy said. "I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy."

Spoken like someone else we know.


Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.