Woods, McIlroy strike up friendship on and off the course

PALM BEACH GARDENS — Tiger Woods plays golf to win championships, not make friendships. And he did plenty of the former and not much of the latter during his first 14 years on the PGA Tour.

Whether his rival was Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh or Sergio Garcia, Woods was often portrayed as a ruthless competitor whose conversation with playing partners during majors was sometimes limited to "good shot" or "you're away."

When Woods won any of his 14 majors, there weren't a bunch of fellow players waiting around the green to congratulate him, the way Bubba Watson was received after his Masters victory last year. And Woods was fine with that. His ability to intimidate was perhaps the 15th club in his bag.

But that has changed in the past 15 months. Not only has Rory McIlroy become Woods' latest rival, but perhaps his closest friend on tour.

They now both make millions working for the same company (Nike), the pair celebrating McIlroy's deal earlier this year in Abu Dhabi like a bunch of fraternity brothers with ceremonial toasts, arms wrapped around each other.

They play casual golf together — Woods invited McIlroy to the Medalist Club in Hobe Sound last Sunday to play a 36-hole match — as well as competitive golf (they were paired together eight times in 2012). Soon, they will be shooting Nike commercials together (their debut ad was actually filmed separately). Some might even call them BFFs in today's social media-driven world, a claim Woods doesn't shoot down.

"He's a friend of mine who just happens to be the No. 1 player in the world," Woods said Wednesday after he finished his pro-am round at the Honda Classic. "We've certainly hit it off, and our relationship has grown."

McIlroy says they didn't have much of a relationship before they played a nine-hole practice round last year in Abu Dhabi. From the desert sprouted a friendship.

"Before last year, we would say hello in passing, but not really anything else," McIlroy said. "When you get to know him, when you get into his sort of circle, it's great."

Woods' ability to isolate himself from his peers goes hand in hand with his dominance. Instead of being one of the guys, he was always The Guy.

It probably didn't help that Woods' emergence in 1997 happened almost like a lightning bolt when he won his first major as a pro, the 1997 Masters, by 12 shots.

"I just came out of college and next thing you know, I'm (the) No. 1 player in the world," Woods said.

McIlroy's rise has been just a bit slower. It took him four years as a professional before he won his first major, even though he did it in similar breathtaking style (an eight-shot win at the 2011 U.S . Open).

"Rory's had time to adapt and to grow into it," Woods said. "I think he's done a fantastic job of it."

There is plenty of symmetry between Woods and McIlroy at the Honda Classic. It was here a year ago when McIlroy held off Woods' final-round 62 — Woods' Sunday best as a professional — to win the Honda Classic and become No. 1 in the world for the first time. At 22, McIlroy became the second-youngest player to ever reach No. 1 behind Woods, naturally.

Not only are they joined at the top of the world rankings and last year's Honda leaderboard , their mansions are only about 10 miles apart in northern Palm Beach and southern Martin counties. They practically share the same ZIP code.

Golf is filled with older legends who mentored younger stars. For a while. Arnold Palmer helped out a young Jack Nicklaus until Nicklaus started kicking Palmer's butt and their relationship went frosty for a long time.

When Woods was learning the ropes early in his career, he was wise to listen to the tutelage of fellow pros and Isleworth residents Mark O'Meara and John Cook.

"Those guys really took me under their wing," Woods said. "Went out to dinner all the time and basically traveled together on Tour, went fishing all the time. They were like my big brothers at the time."

The 14-year difference in age between Woods (37) and McIlroy is crucial. If they were closer in age, Woods likely would still be saying "hello" to McIlroy in passing, not much else.

But it's clear that Woods sees a lot of himself in McIlroy . How many people can say they understand their unique lives? It also doesn't hurt that McIlroy is a genuinely nice person.

Some observers believe the Woods-McIlroy friendship will dissipate as soon as Woods wins major No. 15 and then truly sees McIlroy as his greatest threat to surpass Nicklaus' 18 professional majors. I don't see that happening.

They might not be BFFs , but they respect and admire each other's accomplishments. Don't be surprised if these buddies aren't spending more time together this weekend at PGA National, perhaps on late Sunday afternoon, with a piece of hardware at stake.

Craig Dolch is a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers correspondent with over 30 years of golf writing experience.

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