Henny Ray Abrams, AP Photos
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy playing in the same group. Bethpage Black, a notoriously tough track on Long Island made even more famous by the two U.S. Opens it has hosted in the last decade.
As the playoffs for the FedEx Cup get under way Thursday at The Barclays, the buzz is bigger than usual.
"Playing here at Bethpage Black is incredible," said Woods, who won his second U.S. Open title on this public course in 2002. "Two U.S. Opens here, and this is all the golf course you want. It's a great venue, great fans, and just a great environment to compete at. You know, it's basically like a U.S. Open."
It doesn't look much different from three years ago, except that only a few hundred fans were at the far end of the course watching the pro-am on Wednesday. And the sun was shining, a change from the rain that interrupted the U.S. Open in 2002 and forced a Monday finish in 2009.
The course also is playing to a par 71, with the seventh hole returned to a par 5.
The Barclays is the first of four tournaments in the playoffs, when the field (125 players qualified for the opening event) gets whittled down each week until only 30 reach the Tour Championship, and the winner walks away with a $10 million bonus.
Even so, this one has a different feel.
Part of that is because of the golf course.
"The whole place is just big," said Zach Johnson, who will join Woods and McIlroy as the middle man of the top three players from the FedEx Cup standings. "I mean, the property is big. Everything about it is just big. Elevated tee shots, uphill tee shots. I think it's great. It's right out in front of you. It's not hidden. There's certain holes you've just got to get off with a great shot, starting at the tee box through the green. And that's what separates a championship course from an OK course.
"I think this does it."
And part of that is the players, particularly Woods and McIlroy.
Jason Dufner, the No. 2 player, decided not to play the opening event to keep fresh for a busy stretch of five tournaments in six weeks, concluding with the Ryder Cup on Sept. 28-30 at Medinah.
Woods is No. 1 in the standings for the fourth time in six years of this competition. McIlroy is No. 3, and Johnson moves into that group at No. 4. He once described himself as a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he won the 2007 Masters. He might feel even more overlooked on Thursday.
"I'm going to relish the opportunity because I think they're two of the best players that I play with, certainly two of the better players that are playing right now in the world," Johnson said. "I guess if I wasn't playing with them and I was working out or in my hotel, I'd probably be watching them on TV, so now I've got a firsthand watch. I know the crowd will be pushing them quite heavily, and it'll be fun."
McIlroy is No. 1 in the world ranking after winning the PGA Championship two weeks ago at Kiawah Island.
It's not so much that he won his second major at a slightly younger age when Woods won two majors, but it was the way McIlroy won them — both by eight shots. Only three other majors have been won by more than eight shots since 1976, all of them by Woods.
If it's not a rivalry already, it's taking root.
They were on opposite ends of the course during the pro-am — Woods on the first tee for the shotgun start, McIlroy starting at No. 10. They were much closer when it was time for their interviews. Because everyone started at the same time Wednesday morning, McIlroy was three questions into his news conference when he noticed Woods waiting at the back of the room.
"It really focuses you from the get-go, a pairing like that," McIlroy said. "I feel every time I've played with Tiger, he's sort of brought the best out of me. I really feel focused and obviously want to play well. I'm looking forward to it. I really enjoy his company. I know we'll have a good time out there. I'm keeping him waiting here, so I'll stop talking about him."
But that's all anyone is talking about. The $10 million prize can wait until next month at Atlanta.
"It's going to be fun for both of us," Woods said. "I enjoy playing with Rory, and I hope he feels the same way about being in the same group as me. I got a chance this year to play with him at Abu Dhabi in a practice round there, and we really hit it off. He's a great kid and it's great to be around him. What an amazing talent he really is. I just hope that everyone just lets him grow and develop as a player because it's going to be fun to see over the next 20 years how this kid's career is going to pan out."
There was one light moment when McIlroy was asked whether he'd like to face Woods in Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup.
"Yeah, I'd love to go out there," McIlroy said. "I'd love Tiger to go out first and kick his (behind)."
Woods joined in the spontaneous laughter. McIlroy finished up his interview a few minutes later, and as he moved away from the table, he waited by the door until Woods walked by and they slapped hands. If a rivalry blossoms, all indications are it will be a friendly one.
Woods concluded a season without a major for the fourth straight year. There's still plenty of golf on his plate, however. He has four playoff events in five weeks, and then the Ryder Cup, and a chance to be on the winning side for only the second time.
Someone jokingly asked Woods if he was ready for McIlroy to give him a beating in the Ryder Cup if they play each other. Woods leaned toward the microphone, smiled and said, "No."
They might not play against each at Medinah. They'll be on the first tee together at Bethpage Black.
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