FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Dressed in black, they almost looked like their own villainous tag team bent on world domination. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were playing The Barclays before a large gallery of early-rising New Yorkers, but in truth they were out there all by themselves, communicating in the language of worldwide fame.
Tiger and Rory. Rory and Tiger. They hit thunderous drives over Bethpage Black's wet and wild grasses, and then together they walked up the fairway chatting and laughing in a worry-free way.
Zach Johnson, former Masters champ, was the third wheel of a group that inspired the vast majority of first-round fans to trudge out to the 10th tee for the 8:16 a.m. ET start on the back nine.
Johnson spent much of the day among the caddies and cops, the marshals and standard bearers, while Woods and McIlroy marched up ahead. Johnson shot 3-under 68, the same as Tiger and one better than Rory, and yet he was reduced to what George Orwell might've called an unperson, a figure erased from existence just like that.
Johnson was forever playing from 50, 60 and 70 yards behind the big boys, and people more or less wanted him to hurry up and hit and clear out of the way. They wanted to watch Tiger and Rory try to de-fang this monstrous host of two U.S. Opens and, of course, try to take Round 1 of their own heavyweight fight.
"We're trying to shoot 3-under, 4-under, 5-under," McIlroy said. "We're not trying to beat each other."
Listen up, kid. Tiger Woods didn't win 14 major championships by merely beating the course. In fact, he prefers to beat living, breathing people, and right now there's nobody on the face of the earth -- not Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els or Vijay Singh or Sergio Garcia -- he'd rather beat than you.
So yes, Woods left Bethpage on Thursday night thinking he was a stroke ahead of one Irishman, not 4 strokes behind another, 18-hole leader Padraig Harrington. In pursuing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles, Tiger knows the one player most likely to slow him down, or derail him altogether, is Rory McIlroy, the PGA Championship winner who captured his second major at a slightly younger age than Tiger won his.
Woods knows McIlroy has more talent and nerve than the discarded rivals from his past, and he knows Rory is gunning for him the way Tiger has always gunned for Jack.
"He's a nice kid," Woods said, "he really is."
So nice, in fact, that Tiger lunched with him Wednesday after Rory joked for the cameras that he planned to "kick his ass" at the Ryder Cup.
"There's no way in hell you're kicking my ass," Woods told McIlroy during their meal.
"Obviously it was just a joke," McIlroy said, "and it was funny, and we had a laugh out of it, so it was good."
So far, Woods-McIlroy is all good. They say they like each other, their actions generally support their words, and golf could sure use another Nicklaus-Palmer or Nicklaus-Watson to keep it rolling.
Only make no mistake: If McIlroy continues to win majors on Woods' watch, this buddy-buddy system will be junked for a tense and distant tee-to-green relationship, a transition that will enhance the rivalry.
Arnold Palmer helped a young Nicklaus, gave him some tips and offered him some rides on his plane. But once Jack started dominating Arnie, they became frenemies at best and feuding polar opposites at worst.
Woods never hid his lack of affection for Mickelson and Singh, and he once took an unnecessary public swipe at Els, questioning his work ethic and saying the Big Easy took it too easy after knee surgery. Tiger has never wanted his opponents to feel comfortable around him. His aura of intimidation (pre-scandal, anyway) was the most lethal club in his bag.
But for the first time, Woods is older than his chief rival. He's a scarred 36; McIlroy is a fresh 23. "I think the dynamic has shifted," Tiger said.
"I've been out here enough years now that I think I might be past the stage of a vet, getting more towards grizzled. But I've been out here long enough where generations are going to start changing now."
So there was Tiger hanging with Rory around the fairways, almost assuming the role of older sibling. The kid brother jumped out to the early lead, and after McIlroy sank a 9-foot downhiller for birdie at No. 15 to get to 3 under, 2 shots ahead of Woods, suddenly Tiger found a new partner -- Zach Johnson -- for the walk to his drive at the 16th.
Largely ignored until that point, Johnson must've felt compelled to reintroduce himself to Woods. Tiger eventually found his stroke, and when he sank a short birdie putt at the par-5 fourth before a shorter Rory miss, he took the intramural lead he would not relinquish.
"He didn't start off great," McIlroy said of Woods, "but he sort of weathered the storm a bit. ... He got his way around the golf course like a true pro, even if he hadn't got his best game with him."
It all made for theater compelling enough to temper New York's love affair with Phil Mickelson, who shot his own 3-under Thursday morning while playing before a crowd he could've fit inside his private jet.
Everyone came to see Tiger and Rory, Rory and Tiger, men in black distinguished by their caps (McIlroy wore the dark one, Woods the white one). Their interaction was fascinating to watch, as Tiger has never been so downright neighborly to a challenger in a fairly big event.
Maybe Woods just has a hard time disliking McIlroy the way he disliked the others. Or maybe he's finally ripping a page from the playbook of Michael Jordan, famous for buttering up opponents in the morning before tearing out their hearts at night.
Either way, Rory should understand that the more he wins in Tiger's time, the more Woods will retreat from their quasi-friendship.
So McIlroy should enjoy the warm and fuzzy relationship with his idol while it lasts, if only because it won't.