CARMEL, Ind. — Two weeks ago when the FedEx Cup playoffs began, Rory McIlroy was just starting his interview when he noticed Tiger Woods waiting his turn at the back of the room. It prompted the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland to jokingly say he would like to go off first against Woods in the Ryder Cup and “kick his (behind).” They both laughed, and later had lunch together at Bethpage.
On the day before the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick, it was McIlroy who came into the back of the room to wait on Woods. And while there were no playful exchanges, a question that came McIlroy’s way after Woods had left showed how much times are changing.
Woods is 36. Do you still look for him to be back winning majors?
“He’s old, huh?” McIlroy said. “Yeah, for sure. … He’s had his chances in the majors going into the weekend, and it just hasn’t quite happened for him. But for sure, he’s going to keep putting himself up there in position, and he’s going to have a lot of chances to win tournaments and majors.”
These are the questions no one ever asked about Woods.
But then, there hasn’t been another player since Woods went on the first of several big runs who was worthy of getting such a question. McIlroy elevated his position even more last week when he closed with a 67 to win the Deutsche Bank Championship.
The victory put him at No. 1 in three categories — the world ranking, the PGA Tour money list and the FedEx Cup, which could set up a showdown in two weeks at the Tour Championship.
Both have three wins, although McIlroy became the heavy favorite as PGA Tour player of the year because one of his wins was a major; that eight-shot win at Kiawah Island in the PGA Championship last month. Majors are big in the minds of players, who do the voting on this award, and Woods might have to win the next two events to be considered.
For now, they will be in the same group for the opening two rounds at the BMW Championship, which starts Thursday. Players are grouped based on the FedEx Cup list, so Woods and McIlroy also played together at The Barclays. Woods got him by five shots, though McIlroy had the better weekend and finished ahead.
“I think it definitely creates some more interest for the fans and for golf in general,” McIlroy said. “I don’t see any challenge in it. I mean, it’s just good fun. It’s good fun to be out there and have such an atmosphere and such a buzz around a grouping like that, and it’s just nice to be a part of.”
Barclays winner Nick Watney will be joining them.
The buzz might have existed even without Woods and McIlroy in the same group. The highest level of golf returns to Crooked Stick for the first time since the 1991 PGA Championship, when a PGA Tour rookie who was the ninth alternate — John Daly — drove up from Arkansas and overpowered the Pete Dye design.
No one in the 70-man field at the BMW Championship played in that PGA. Davis Love III and Billy Mayfair were around back then, but both were eliminated in the first round of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Ernie Els remembers, even if he was a thousand miles away.
“I was in Tulsa that week for the Hogan Tour,” Els said. “We were all watching, because it was like a family. John came from the Hogan Tour.”
That’s where the similarities between those two end.
The size of the gallery for the Wednesday pro-am was not as large as expected because of a severe storm that blew through Indianapolis, chasing fans back to their cars and dumping even more rain on a course that really didn’t need it.
No course is too long for these guys, and the soft, pure greens should mean low scoring.
“You can be pretty aggressive,” Woods said. “I think the guys will be firing at a lot of flags this week.”
They should be used to that by now. After an opening playoff event at Bethpage Black, they went after the TPC Boston last week. McIlroy won at 20-under 264 to beat Louis Oosthuizen, while Woods was third, making a birdie on the last hole for a 66 to finish two shots behind at 266.
For Woods, it was the 12th time in his career that he shot all four rounds in the 60s without winning, and the first time since Dubai Desert Classic in 2007. The only other time he had a lower score than that without winning was at Disney — twice — at 265.
“It was advantageous to hit the ball a long way,” Woods said after playing 16 holes in the pro-am before rain interrupted. “But you’ve got to hit the fairway. If you do hit the ball in the fairway, driving it out there, you can attack a lot of these flags. A lot of these corners don’t really come into play with it being this soft. The ball is just going to hit and plug.”
Anytime a player says “soft,” that usually means low scoring. Woods did not disagree.
“But we’ve never played here,” he said. “With that said, guys will start getting a feel for it, and I’m sure you’ll see some low scores. But then I think the guys will start going lower and lower.”
What matters this week is getting higher and higher — at least in the FedEx Cup.
The top 30 from the 70-man field advance to the Tour Championship, a reward in itself because that comes with an exemption into the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open (and with rare exception, the PGA Championship). Then, everyone in the field at East Lake has a crack at the $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup.
The top five players going into this week are McIlroy, Watney, Woods, Brandt Snedeker and Oosthuizen. The idea is to stay in the top five, for those are the players who would be assured the $10 million by winning the Tour Championship no matter what anyone else does.
— Associated Press