McIlroy takes humorous jab at Tiger

FARMINGDALE, N.Y.-- Imagine having the stage to yourself in a big interview with the media and you are being asked questions about one of your rivals. But then your rival walks in the back door. He's not there to cause a scene or to make you feel uncomfortable. But you're probably nervous and a little self-conscious about talking about your rival with him in the same room.

That was Rory McIlroy's predicament on Wednesday afternoon as he spoke in advance of the start of the Barclays on Thursday at the famed Bethpage Black Course on Long Island, where he will be paired with Woods and Zach Johnson.

Tiger walked into the room as McIlroy was being asked what it will be like for him to play the first two rounds with the 74-time PGA Tour winner.

"I feel every time I've played with Tiger," McIlroy said, "he's sort of brought the best out of me. I really feel focused and obviously want to play well.

"I really enjoy his company. I know we'll have a good time out there. I'm keeping him waiting here, so I'll stop talking about him."

Then to temporarily defuse with humor any discomfort he might feel about having Tiger in the room during his time with the media, McIlroy said of the upcoming Ryder Cup: "I'd love to go out first [in Sunday singles] and kick [Tiger's] ass."

Later in the interview, McIlroy was asked who he thought was the best player in the world. This could have been one of those moments that you see in lead-ups to big boxing matches, where the fighters argue about who is the best. For a moment, I imagined McIlroy playing Joe Frazier to Tiger's Muhammad Ali.

But it didn't happen that way. McIlroy gave a very measured answer, a little timid and studied. It was the kind of response that Mitt Romney or Barack Obama might give in their first presidential debate, careful as to not offend any constituency.

"It's hard for me to sit up here and say that I'm the best player in the world or Tiger is," McIlroy said. "Sure, I feel like I'm the best and Tiger feels like he's the best.

"Tiger has been the best player in the world for the last 15 years. Just that people are mentioning my name with the likes of him is a huge compliment."

When Tiger came to the podium, he was naturally asked about Rory.

"He's a great kid and it's great to be around him," Woods said. "I just hope that everyone just lets him grow and develop as a player because it's going to be fun to see over the next 20 years how this kid's career is going to pan out."

This minor episode on Wednesday provides a window into McIlroy's near future as the best player in the world. It's his stage, but Tiger is close by, peering down over his younger rival with a mix of optimism and doubt. Tiger has seen the likes of McIlroy come and go.

Woods pointed to his own longevity when he asked us to look at McIlroy over the next two decades.

Tiger wasn't saying look at what I've done, but only that he has firsthand knowledge of what it's like to be shrouded with praise very earlier in your career after a few big wins.

But McIlroy has to sort through all the adulation and praise, and find a place where he's comfortably growing into the player that he needs to become to win double-digit majors. Winning won't automatically prepare him for more success. If you don't mature with the success both on and off the golf course, you could have a quick tailspin down the road.

Tiger got better by setting his own goals for his game, regardless of his tournament results.

After winning the Masters by a record 12 shots in 1997, Woods spent the next year rebuilding his golf swing. McIlroy has made similar efforts by taking on Dave Stockton Jr. as his putting instructor.

Wednesday's news conference with Tiger in the audience was a good moment for McIlroy to confront the pressure of living up to the gold standard set by Woods, including all the talk of a rivalry between the two players. It was easy to imagine McIlroy as the new CEO of a major corporation toasting his predecessor after a long and successful career. At least with his words, he couldn't bother with speculation of a rivalry.

"I've always said the players don't build up rivalries themselves, people from the outside build up the rivalries," McIlroy said. "I just want to play good golf. I want to try and keep winning golf tournaments.

"That's all I can really concentrate on, just concentrate on myself."

McIlroy would do well to carry these thoughts into his Thursday and Friday pairings with Woods.

As McIlroy talked on Wednesday after the pro-am, it was hard not to look back at Tiger every time the 23-year-old kid said something about his game. I was looking for a reaction from Tiger to anything McIlroy said, but he didn't give off much. And he didn't need to. It was McIlroy's podium and his time to speak.

Over the next few years, like most of us, Tiger will be watching very closely to see what McIlroy says with his golf clubs. He'll probably have the stage to himself without Tiger at some point but with a bunch of young kids in the flanks.

I hope McIlroy means it the next time he says in an interview that he wants to go out first in a Ryder Cup and "kick [Tiger's] ass." That would send the kind of message to Woods and the rest of the golfing public that would be loud enough to hear around the world.