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TWO MAN GAME
MICHAEL BAMBERGER
April 02, 2012
Each was a prodigy and an only child. One is 36 and has won 14 majors, the other is 22 and preparing for his 14th major start. Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy is the only story in golf
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April 02, 2012

Two Man Game

Each was a prodigy and an only child. One is 36 and has won 14 majors, the other is 22 and preparing for his 14th major start. Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy is the only story in golf

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Things were never that easy for Tiger, and now they're only harder. Winning Tour events might change things in his public life, but it doesn't have much influence on his private one. These days he's a single parent first, and as a golfer he always has one eye on various body parts: his reconstructed left knee, that right Achilles prone to inflammation, his back during the Bay Hill pro-am.

Golf has had older 36-year-olds, though not many. Seve was pretty much done at 36. Hogan was 36 when a Greyhound bus nearly killed him, but he still won—and won big—after that when his body cooperated (See Friendly Rivals, page 84). Tiger will keep winning too, most likely at places that are loaded with good vibes for him, like Bay Hill and Doral and Firestone, tried-and-true Tour stops. If he's going to get to 18 major titles—Big Jack's final resting place—he will be particularly dependent on the courses where he has already won, where his cunning ways will give him an edge over ever-longer brazen youths like Rory. But how many major cracks will he get at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews and Torrey Pines and a few other happy hunting grounds over the next decade? Maybe a half dozen. His annual tour at Augusta National will make or break him, assuming his body holds up.

If you were on the 12th tee on Sunday at Doral when Tiger suddenly packed it in, you couldn't doubt that he was in pain. His face was contorted, and he didn't even discuss the possibility of playing on. But so many ordinary fans simply didn't believe him. They think that Woods, as insiders said of Michael Jordan in his NBA heyday, believes there are special rules only for him. It's a harsh view, and it may or may not be true. But the point is, people have become suspicious. The one thing everybody believes is his wins. Didn't he look heroic, standing on the 18th green at Bay Hill on Sunday? Tour events are important, but what Woods needs more than anything is a 15th major. He talked about that Sunday night, when his win seemed to generate more fascination than euphoria among golf fans, and more relief than happiness for Woods. He's been stuck on 14 for three years and 10 months.

This will be McIlroy's fourth trip to Augusta. He finished 20th in his first major as a professional, the 2009 Masters. That year, on the 18th hole in the second round, he left a shot in a greenside bunker, and he kicked the sand. If you kick the sand out of anger, with your ball still in the trap, it's considered testing the ground, and there's a two-shot penalty for that. If you're kicking the sand to smooth it out, you're fine. Rules officials brought McIlroy, then 19, back to the course four hours after his round was over to review a video of the shot. He said he was simply smoothing the sand. The rules officials decided to believe him. Would Woods have been given the same benefit of the doubt?

McIlroy was just a kid then, and he still is, really, an Irish (Northern) lad. Your cousin's kid at St. Cecilia's is bigger than he is, and she's in the eighth grade. Even with his newly sleek physique and his splashy girlfriend (tennis star Caroline Wozniacki), he's just a boy with a big watch and the money to pay for it, his parents following him on the course but giving him his space too. (B.J. and Bo Wie, meet Gerry and Rosie McIlroy. They're easy to find. Maybe bring Michelle. Let them buy you a beer, but pass on the smokes.) A night or two a week, sometimes far more, Rory hangs with his folks. When fans say hi, he says hi right back. In press sessions reporters ask questions, and Rory answers them. "It's nice to be nice, and it doesn't cost you a penny," Gerry likes to say. He's been a food-and-beverage man all his life. He knows how bread gets buttered.

How did these simple things get so complicated with Tiger? When he was 14, Tiger and his father were with the writer Jaime Diaz when Tiger asked, "Why do they have to know everything?" It was an insightful and telling question. Two decades later Diaz, who knows Woods better than most writers, started helping Haney with his book.

Jeff Silverman, in an incisive review of The Big Miss for GOLF.com, summarized Haney's take on Tiger with this sentence: "He's cheap, arrogant, reckless, narcissistic, selfish, immature, icy, defensive, entitled, walled-in, imperious and a sore loser." Tiger most likely is all those things, but there's more to him than that, just as there is surely more to Rory than his charming quotes, his beautiful play, his genial parents and his Alexander Nash duds.

Tiger may be cheap, but the Tiger Woods Foundation has improved thousands of lives. If you've watched Tiger closely this year, with Ernie Els at Bay Hill and Steve Stricker at Doral and Lee Westwood at Honda, you can see that his need to connect with other people—that is, other people who actually understand what he has accomplished in life and what he's been through—is almost desperate. The hugs, the soul shakes, the knowing smiles. That doesn't mean he's not imperious. He is. You should have seen the icy glare he gave an Augusta National member who dared to tell him to stop practicing and get on the course because play was about to begin after a rain delay. Everybody loves a winner. You saw that all over again in Tiger's win at Bay Hill. But it doesn't cover up the fact that he IS a sore loser. If you need a reminder, just YouTube his Sunday night interviews from the 2011 Masters, the 2010 Masters, the 2009 PGA. We could go on.

Rory knows how to lose, and we love him for it. At last year's Masters he had a four-shot lead going into the final round, then fired a back-nine 43 on Sunday and tumbled to 15th place. The goofy, over-the-top public response to his U.S. Open victory two months later was rooted in his postround grace and honesty on that Sunday at Augusta when Tiger and 13 others raced past him. At Congressional, Rory himself had the presence to remind people that he had now won exactly one major. It was endearing. It never seems like an act with him.

With Woods, you never know, and it's always useful to remember that he's a skillful actor. (Remember the old Buick spots, in which he saw dead people? Or his impassive face in that weird 2010 Nike spot, Earl providing the voiceover from the hereafter?) Masters of subterfuge are always good actors.

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