"I love you," McIlroy told Williams. "But when I'm getting ready to tee up, if you can kind of hold it down a little bit."
McIlroy was gracious enough about it to take a selfie with the former St. Louis Rams cornerback and current church pastor, who lives around the corner from Bellerive Country Club. The scene was a reminder that strange things can happen when golf's elders serve up a heavyweights-only fight to a sweat-soaked, overheated mob in a market that no longer has an NFL team or a steady supply of training camp stories to follow on the dog-day pursuits of Williams and friends.
But the downside of feeding Woods, McIlroy and defending PGA champ Justin Thomas to the Bellerive beast -- namely the sights, sounds and smells of the human stampede tracking them through the thick humidity and morning mud -- is more than neutralized by the fact that a 42-year-old Woods has taken hold of the young kids and made the supergroup the coolest thing in golf.
Once again, with feeling, almost no other sport can match greats from different eras against each other in a playoff or championship setting. Magic Johnson, 58, is not going to help LeBron James' Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals anytime soon. But Tom Watson, 59, was one short putt away from winning The Open at Turnberry in 2009, when Woods was still in his prime.
"It's interesting what this game of golf can do," Tiger said Thursday, "how we can basically last for so many different generations."
Woods told of how he played with a 60-year-old Jack Nicklaus at Valhalla in 2000, in Nicklaus' final PGA Championship appearance, while a 7-year-old Justin Thomas watched Tiger win from inside the clubhouse. All these years later, Woods told of how a 31-year-old Nicklaus played with Gene Sarazen on the eve of Sarazen's 69th birthday, and of how an all-grown-up Thomas asked Tiger the other night to speak on his behalf at the champions' dinner.
When done right, golf can tie together so many memorable people and places.
"Pretty neat," Woods called the morning grouping.
Pretty damn special to have two sluggers in their 20s -- McIlroy and Thomas -- test their power and precision against the legend who owns one of the world's most recognizable bald spots.
A four-time major winner, McIlroy was struck by the electricity at such an early hour (they teed off at 8:23 a.m. local) and spoke with Thomas about how nuts it's likely to be for Round 2 on Friday afternoon. Not that the Northern Irishman was complaining about the garden-variety distractions tethered to a major championship round in Woods' company -- the extra noise, extra cameras, extra media inside the ropes and extra, extra movement after Tiger plays a shot and often before his opponents play theirs.
McIlroy grew up in a faraway place, idolizing Tiger, dreaming of someday chasing his records. He relived that dream Thursday with his caddie and childhood friend, Harry Diamond.
"Harry caddied for me in the 2005 Irish Open when I was 16, and then we're walking the fairways in a group like this today," McIlroy said. "So it's pretty cool. ... The cool thing about golf is Tiger is playing with us."
Thomas said that he didn't want to get too invested in Tigermania, that maybe he'd gotten a bit distracted the first couple of times he was paired with Woods. This is a major, after all, and Thomas said all supergroup members were focused primarily on winning it.
But on this good walk unspoiled with Tiger, Rory and JT, it was clear they were enjoying one another's company. Tiger and Rory were seen smiling and laughing. Tiger and JT were seen smiling and laughing. Rory and JT were seen smiling and laughing.
On his third hole of the day, the par-4 12th, Woods answered his alarming bogey, double-bogey start by stopping his caddie, Joe LaCava, and pulling a new shirt out of his bag. After Tiger stepped into a portable toilet to throw on the fresh shirt, Thomas turned to LaCava and said, "That cracks me up." LaCava responded about the discarded shirt, "That one's not working."
Woods said he changed the shirt because he sweats heavily and didn't get a chance to change it after his warm-up. Either way, he recovered to play his final 10 holes in 3-under and finish at even-par, 6 behind leader Gary Woodland, 1 behind Thomas and none behind McIlroy
"Just hung in there," Woods said.
He did plenty more than that. He reminded everyone that golf is a much more interesting place when he's a relevant competitor and not just an ambassador and cheerleader for younger U.S. stars in international team events.
Golf doesn't have many built-in advantages over pro football, basketball and baseball, but Tiger-Rory-JT is something that can't happen in the NFL, NBA or MLB postseasons. No logistical inconvenience is worth breaking up a supergroup, that's for sure, and waiting around for a cross-generational, Sunday showdown to happen organically doesn't make much sense, either, when odds are it won't happen -- at least not in the same pairing.
"These two guys," Woods said of McIlroy and Thomas, "have been basically at the top of the world for the last four or five years now consistently. ... It was fun to get out there and compete."
It was fun to watch young and old interact at Bellerive. In the end, though, Tiger Woods is the one who puts the "super" in the supergroup. Golf should keep trotting it out there as long as Woods is upright.