AT TIMES, the build-up to this Ryder Cup has seemed more like that of a boxing world title fight, such has been the fall-out from Rory McIlroy’s seemingly innocuous comment that he would quite like to play against Tiger Woods this weekend.
In direct contrast to the pleasantries being exchanged on a daily basis between the two captains, the continuing saga of Rory and Tiger and their possible head-to-head at Celtic Manor has been taking on a life of its own. But it took an unexpected turn yesterday when the 21-year-old European rookie found an ally in American rival Phil Mickelson.
McIlroy’s assertion that the aura surrounding the world number one and 14-time major winner had “gone” is reported to have rankled with Woods in the USA team room overlooking the TwentyTen course outside Newport.
When asked on Tuesday for a reaction to McIlroy’s desire to face him, Woods replied simply: “Me too.”
Those two words provoked a small tabloid frenzy overnight, and one that prompted McIlroy’s captain Colin Montgomerie to feel the need to cheer the youngster up yesterday morning, his playing partners Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer all donning Rory wigs on the first tee.
Regardless, US captain Corey Pavin, like a latterday Don King, was happy to increase the hype yesterday when asked if McIlroy had been wise to comment about Woods.
He responded with a long and archful pause before breaking his silence with: “Can I just leave it at that? I think other people have said things like that to Tiger in the past and have maybe regretted it.”
“I think anything that gets players fired up is always a positive thing for the player who is being fired up. I know Tiger is aware of the comment.
“If they do play against each other I think it would be quite entertaining. I don’t know if they will...but I think it would be fun to watch.”
Mickelson, though, took a different stance, downplaying McIlroy’s words as a response any competitor would make.
“Any player wants to play the best and Tiger is ranked number one in the world,” Mickelson said. “That’s the type of charisma that Rory has. He’s just like any other top player that wants to take on the best. That’s not any type of controversy or saga.”
As for any umbrage taken by Woods, Mickelson dismissed the notion out of hand.
“They get along great, are you kidding me? Rory is one of the nicest guys you can imagine. He’s one of the classiest guys out on Tour, ask Tiger, he gets along with just about everybody, usually because he beats them and he’s nice to them when he beats them. Rory is as classy a guy as there is. The European team is built on a lot of classy character.”
Mickelson is pretty classy guy himself and was in exceptionally cheery form as he answered media questions at Celtic Manor yesterday. He spoke of his fondness for Montgomerie, described the intense ping-pong contests in the US team room and was self-deprecating when called upon to talk about Newport’s own Ryder Cup hero Philip Price, who defeated the American in singles play at The Belfry in 2002.
‘Lefty’ also provoked laughter when his turn came to answer a question posed by the same London tabloid journalist who had on Tuesday told Tiger Woods he was “now an ordinary golfer.”
“You and Tiger had a shocking partnership in the foursomes and fourballs I remember at Oakland Hills a few years ago. Is there any chance of you two being paired together this week?” asked the reporter.
“Oh, yeah, I think there’s a great chance,” fired back Mickelson, his words dripping in sarcasm. “Why don’t you just hold your breath and we’ll see on Friday.”
Mickelson later said Woods was pretty much locked in to play with Steve Stricker, reprising their successful partnership at last year’s Presidents Cup while the world number two is looking increasingly likely to team up with big-hitting Dustin Johnson when play starts on Friday morning.
“Dustin is going to be a good partner for anybody, regardless of their style of play, because he is so good,” he said of his friend and regular practice partner. “He hits the ball so solidly and he could be the straightest driver I’ve ever seen.
“Now, granted, he’s hitting the ball longer than just about anybody on Tour, but if you take the percentage of degree off-line, his is probably as straight or straighter than anybody else on Tour. But he’s also 40 or 50 yards ahead of where the guys are that are leading driving accuracy. I think that he would be a great partner for me.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved