It is a long time since Tiger Woods began a press conference with observations about someone else. Woods was four questions into his first media engagement of the year before the topic shifted from Rory McIlroy to him. Just how much of a shadow McIlroy has cast over Woods since his $125m (£77.8m) Nike unveiling will be revealed in Abu Dhabi on Sunday should the company’s new signing opt for a red shirt.
Red is the power colour that Woods made his own during the years of plunder. Nike issues its clients with four shirts for the week and it is understood that only one player is allowed to make red his Sunday best if Woods is in the field. That player would be the holder of 14 majors and 75 PGA titles.
McIlroy claimed to be ignorant of any stipulation and said that he didn’t care what colour he wore on Sundays as long as it didn’t clash with a certain shade of emerald, a reference to the jacket awarded to the winner of the Masters Tournament in April. “I couldn’t tell you,” McIlroy said. “I’ve worn red before. I’m not saying that is the colour I want to play in on the last day. I’d rather just wear something that goes with green.”
McIlroy’s adept sidestep of a tricky issue demonstrates how far he has come, even in the past 12 months. It was not so long ago that he was tweeting his disdain for a BBC pundit who dared criticise his course management, and later in 2011 haughtily dismissing the idea that he had to adapt to meet the unique demands of the Open Championship. He still speaks his mind, as he showed in his public support of Paul McGinley for the Ryder Cup captaincy, but in less reactionary tones.
Woods, for one, has noticed the difference. “A lot of things are certainly changing in his life,” said Woods. “I’ve kind of been there and understand it. When you have success there are more responsibilities at a tournament site and more distractions that are taking you away from what you like to do, which is compete and play. That is something that he has certainly figured out, a big adjustment he made last summer. Consequently, he had a huge end of year. That was a good sign. It’s nice, when all that is said and done, to get out there and compete. I’m sure he is looking forward to Thursday, just like everyone else in this field.”
The Woods-McIlroy love-in is essentially a construct that both players and their sponsors are happy to indulge. It does not have private legs. They will not be going to the bar to watch the match together. The Nike video of the pair hitting balls on the range was filmed individually. But there is obvious respect for each other’s game.
It is a big year for Woods, who is approaching a season at full throttle for the first time in six years. Free of injury and benefiting from a trauma-free private life, Woods says he feels ready to renew the attack on the major mountain that Jack built. He remains four short of the Nicklaus haul of 18 but fancies his chances at the big ones this year. “It was nice in the off-season to train and to get the endurance up to the levels that I know I can get to. Three of the four major courses I really like. I haven’t played Merion [US Open]. I love Augusta. Muirfield [Open] is a wonderful test and Oak Hill [US PGA] is straight out in front of you.”