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Tour Championship 2012: Rory McIlroy looking for a big finish
ATLANTA — Rory McIlroy sounds like he's ready to turn his PGA Tour season into a script.
The opening chapter set the tone for a great year. He played three rounds in Abu Dhabi with Tiger Woods and held his own, and then held off Woods in the Honda Classic to win the tournament and go to No. 1 in the world. The middle section was the struggle, when he blew up on the weekend at the Masters, lost in a playoff at Quail Hollow and then missed the cut four times in five tournaments, including a major.
"And then finished it off really well," McIlroy said Wednesday at the Tour Championship.
The final chapter began with his eight-shot victory at the PGA Championship — the second straight year he has won a major by that margin — and led to consecutive wins in FedEx Cup playoff events in Boston and Indianapolis. It was the first time a player has won two straight tournaments with Woods in the field since Phil Mickelson captured the Tour Championship and HSBC Champions in 2009.
The script is almost complete, and McIlroy is starting with an empty page.
Even though the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland is No. 1 in the FedEx Cup, No. 1 in the world ranking and No. 1 on the PGA Tour money list — all of them by wide margins — he is not assured of claiming the FedEx Cup title unless he wins the Tour Championship.
It starts Thursday at East Lake, and the points have been reset so that everyone in the 30-man field has a mathematical chance to win the $10 million bonus, with the better odds going to the higher seeds. The top five in the FedEx Cup — McIlroy, Woods, Nick Watney, Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker — only have to win the Tour Championship to be the FedEx Cup champion. Just about everyone else would have to win and get some help.
"It obviously still makes it exciting going into the last event," McIlroy said. "It would be nice to have it wrapped up, but it's just the way it is. I'm not going to complain about it or I'm not going to moan about it. I accept it. I accept that I still have a lot of work to do this week, and that's what I'm focused on."
Woods knows the feeling.
He was shocked to learn in 2009, when he played the opening playoff event at The Barclays for the first time, that he could win the first three playoff events and be the runner-up at the Tour Championship and still not win the FedEx Cup.
He compared that with the New England Patriots going 18-0 and losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
It all starts to unfold on Thursday, when Woods and McIlroy are in the final pairing because of their No. 1 and No. 2 seeding in the FedEx Cup. It will be the fifth time they have played together since the playoffs began.
They are so closely linked now that even Greg Norman weighed in.
"What I'm seeing is that Tiger's really intimidated by Rory," Norman said in an interview with FoxSports.com. "When have you ever seen him intimidated by another player? Never."
That brought a peculiar one-liner from Woods, and laughter from McIlroy.
Woods and Norman have never had much of a relationship, and Woods wasn't about to get wrapped up in an exchange of words Wednesday. Asked if he had seen Norman's comments, he replied, "It's got to be the hair, yeah."
McIlroy knows that Woods saw the Norman comments, because Woods gave the kid another nickname.
"He calls me 'The Intimidator,' McIlroy said, stifling a laugh. "No, how can I intimidate Tiger Woods? The guy's got 75 or 70 whatever PGA Tour wins, 14 majors. He's been the biggest thing ever in our sport. I mean, how can some little 23-year-old from Northern Ireland with a few wins come up and intimidate him? It's just not possible. I don't know where he got that from, but it's not true."
The only time Woods ever felt intimidated on the golf course was when he was 11. It was a story he told a decade ago about competing against a 12-year-old in a junior tournament when the older boy drove the green on a 290-yard hole. Woods still wound up winning.
On this day, either tired or annoyed by Norman's comments, Woods gave an elementary response to this intimidation factor.
"This is a different kind of sport," Woods said. "We go out there and we play our own game. And see where it falls at the end of the day. As I said, it's not like you go over the middle and some guy 255 pounds is going to take your head off. This is about execution and going about your own business and seeing where it ends up at the end of the day. It's just the nature of our sport, which is different than some sports."
But if there's a 255-pound linebacker in golf at the moment, it's a freckled-face Boy Wonder who is on a roll that brings natural comparisons with Woods.
McIlroy has an average score of 68.1 in his last five tournaments, which dates to the Bridgestone Invitational where some swagger returned to his game. His confidence has never been higher. He showed up at Crooked Stick expecting to win the BMW Championship, and that's what he did.
Now he has to avoid falling into the trap of being overconfident, a nice problem to have.
McIlroy is playing East Lake for the first time, a rugged test that puts a premium on fairways and greens. Lately, he's been doing just about everything right.
"The way I've played since Firestone, it obviously gives you a lot of confidence," McIlroy said. "But I think you have to guard against being overconfident, as well. You have to still go in and work hard. You've 30 players in this field, 30 of the best players in the world, and I'd be very naive to think that I'm just going to come in here and contend again and have a chance to win.
"I know I'm going to have to play very well," he said. "And hopefully, I can do that."
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