by Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA -- Looking up at Rory McIlroy in the official world golf rankings and having been beaten three times in his last four starts by his colleague who is younger by 13 years, Tiger Woods admitted on the eve of The Tour Championship that yes, he is intimidated by the Boy Wonder with long brown locks from Northern Ireland.
"It's got to be the hair," the follically challenged Woods joked Wednesday.
He dismissed with a smile Greg Norman's comments earlier in the week in which the former world No. 1 golfer said Woods was intimidated by McIlroy. Woods also says he got a chuckle during his down time last week when he heard CBS golf analyst Nick Faldo had said Woods, who hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, had lost his aura and is no longer feared.
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Woods is accustomed to being on the receiving end of such biting critiques since he started dominating the sport more than 15 years ago. And he expects it them to persist as talk of a burgeoning rivalry pitting him against McIlroy has ratcheted up heading into today's start of the final act of the FedExCup Playoffs at East Lake Golf Club.
McIlroy and Woods are 1-2 in the world golf rankings and in the FedExCup standings. They are the only players with at least three wins on the PGA Tour this season, with McIlroy notching four, including an 8-shot romp in the PGA Championship. Buzz has ballooned with four head-to-head pairings during the postseason and with their names high up the leaderboard throughout two of the three playoff events -- both won by McIlroy.
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At long last, after David Duval, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and others, Wood seems to have a rival with whom he can go toe-to-toe for years to come .
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Today, in the first round's final pairing, the two meet again . McIlroy is playing in The Tour Championship and at East Lake for the first time; Woods, the only two-time FedExCup winner, has won once and finished second three times in his last four starts here.
"It's a great position to be in. Every time that we get paired up, I'm obviously very excited for it," said McIlroy, whose victories in this month's Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship made him the first to win Tour events in consecutive weeks since Woods in 2009. "It's a great buzz. I'm looking forward to that first tee (today)."
And McIlroy does so without any trepidation. He, too, had some fun with the remarks from Norman, who told FoxSports.com, "What I'm seeing is that Tiger's really intimidated by Rory. When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never."
Said McIlroy: "(Woods) has got a new nickname for me, actually. He calls me the 'Intimidator.' (But) how can I intimidate Tiger Woods? I mean, the guy's got 75 whatever PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. I mean, he's been the biggest thing ever in our sport.
" I don't know where (Norman) got that from, but it's not true."
What is true is the respect McIlroy and Woods have for one another. They playfully chide each other -- McIlroy attacking Woods' advancing age and retreating hairline; Woods coming back at McIlroy's lack of height. For instance, he will ask McIlroy, who he calls "Kid," what he does when his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, wears heels.
The two, who played together for the first time in an official event in January in the first three rounds of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in the United Arab Emirates, often see each other at the gym. They are chatty as they walk down fairways and share space on tee boxes. And each knows fans are begging for a Ryder Cup singles match between the two next week at Medinah Country Club near Chicago.
"I've always appreciated what Tiger has done over the years, like winning seven, eight, nine times a season for about 10 years and winning so many majors," McIlroy said. "I've been in awe of his accomplishments, in awe of his game. But I've never feared him or ever been intimidated.
"Tiger is going to win again and win a lot. And he's going to win majors again. I don't see him going away."
On the flip side, the only way Woods says he be intimidated by McIlroy is if the lad grows -- a lot. And then puts on a helmet and shoulder pads.
"No one is the size of Ray Lewis who is going to hit me coming over the middle, so this is a different kind of sport," said Woods. "We go out there and we play our own game. And see where it falls at the end of the day.
"It's not like you go over the middle and some guy is 255 pounds and going to take your block off. This is about execution, and going about your own business and see where it ends up at the end of the day."
McIlory has edge for now
Since turning pro in 2007, McIlroy has the upper hand when the two have played and finished in the same tournament. In 43 official events, McIlroy is 23-17-3 heads up against Woods, including a 14-5-2 record the past two seasons. Of those 43 events, McIlroy won five, Woods three.
They have been paired in only four rounds in official PGA Tour events -- all this month. Woods got the best of McIlroy in the first two rounds of The Barclays, shooting 68-69 to McIlroy's 69-73. They split in the opening rounds of the BMW Championship, with McIlroy opening with a 64 to Woods' 65, and Woods coming back with a 67 to McIlroy's 68 in the second round.
More important, though, McIlroy has the edge in standings and Woods is the one chasing the top player .
"As far as the complete package, all the edge has to go to Rory from a confidence standpoint, driving standpoint, putting standpoint," NBC Sports golf analyst Roger Maltbie said. "Right now, he's on top of all those elements."
But Woods isn't going away. He has more shots than McIlroy does right now, and can control his trajectory better. Woods, who battled back from various physical ailments and scandal the past three years and is still working on a major swing overhaul, won on the Tour earlier this year for the first time in 34 months.
"When Tiger is on top of his game, it is case closed," Maltbie said. "But right now, he's in a little different situation. There's someone else on his radar that he's looking at and going, 'Wow.'
"When Tiger dominated the game, he was certainly the longest, most effective player that we've probably ever known. I just think it's a little different dynamic right now, and I think it's a bit of an uphill climb for Tiger. But with that said, he's certainly capable of regaining the top spot, no question."
For 15 years, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee says, Woods was "by far and away the best." Now Chamblee is eager to see if Woods can rise to challenge McIlroy. .
"I think if you took a poll, most people would say Rory McIlroy is clearly better than Tiger Woods, which is preposterous," Chamblee said. "I think we are in the beginning of one of the best eras in the history of the PGA Tour."