Tiger Woods is not the tower of power he once was, but the man hasn't lost any of his instincts. He may not have seen what was coming this past weekend -- who did? -- but he was paying close attention even before Rory McIlroy gave a hint that he was ready to bury the field at the PGA Championship.
Thursday afternoon, after an opening round 69, Woods finished his practice on the range at The Ocean Course, then wandered over where McIlroy was still at work, after his round of 67. Tiger kibbitzed and watched for 15 minutes, in much the same fashion that other players have lingered around Tiger's practice sessions for most of his career. Woods even browsed through McIlroy's golf bag at one point, just to see what was there.
For most players this would be a normal bit of social dalliance. Tiger Woods is not most players. He doesn't just "wander by" to chat. You catch Tiger's attention and something is up.
A day later, Woods held things together on the toughest day in PGA Championship history. With the scoring average at 78.10, Woods came off the course tied for the lead with a 71. Truth is, nobody, not even Tiger, recognized what an accomplishment McIlroy achieved by shooting just 75.
On Sunday, after he had dominated the field to win his second major championship by eight strokes, McIlroy was smart enough to realize that it would never have been possible without Friday's round. You may recall that, at 21, McIlroy shot 63 in the first round of the 2010 Open Championship and followed it with an 80. Then, in 2011, there was that messy bit of Sunday business in Augusta.
Not this time.
"I was four"'over through 13 holes on Friday," said Mcilroy, with pride. "It had all the signs of a round that could get away from you. I dug in there deep and made birdie on 14, and it was a silly bogey on 15, but to come back and play 16 well and birdie that, and par the last two, that was definitely a line that I held together well and that 75 could easily have been a 77 or 78."
Now, after his weekend at The Ocean Course, everyone wants to build the McIlroy myth into a second coming of Woods. To his great credit, Rory isn't all in on that hype. Woods has 14 major championships. Yes, McIlroy has two of those faster than Tiger ... but, really?
"I am just looking for my third," McIlroy insists. "I am not trying to emulate anyone or try to match anyone. I have got my second now which feels unbelievable and I am going to enjoy it and I will be working towards my third and hopefully when I get that I will be working towards my fourth and so on. I just have to enjoy this moment and enjoy getting that second one."
It is interesting that late Sunday afternoon, after failing to launch once again on the weekend at a major, Woods blamed a strange attitude adjustment he made on Saturday for his collapse. He went to the golf course that day not as the take-no-prisoners ruthless competitor he has been all his career but as a guy out there just to enjoy the experience.
There's every chance that he had been paying too much attention to McIlroy. After his opening round, McIlroy credited some advice he got from his mentor, Dave Stockton, who had challenged McIlroy to go out on the course at Kiawah and just have some fun.
"I worked with Dave a little bit in Akron last week. He sort of just said to me: 'You know, just go out there and have fun and enjoy it and smile.' That's something that I've really tried to do the last two weeks, and it's definitely helped."
Woods pays attention to everything and you have to wonder if that advice from Stockton to McIlroy didn't resonate with him, adding to his woe.
Now McIlroy has to be able to handle life in the fishbowl. For a decade, it seemed that Tiger was the gold standard in that regard, maintaining dominance while keeping his nose clean. How wrong we were in that regard. McIlroy is just at the front end of that odyssey. He's made his youthful on-course mistakes and may now be ready to reap the benefits of those experiences, if he can keep it together off the course.
"There was a huge learning curve," he said. "I think one of the biggest things was learning to deal with the scrutiny. It was the first time I have ever had to deal with that so that was something I had to learn and will learn to live with for the rest of my career probably. It is all part of what we do and if I am getting scrutinized like that it means I am doing something right. I don't mind."
You can't help but think Tiger looks at Rory and wonders if he could somehow take a mulligan.
This past weekend, Sir Nick Faldo, perhaps nailed Woods' state of mind perfectly.
"At one stage," quoth Faldo, "Tiger was supersonic and trying to be an ordinary guy. Now he is an ordinary guy, trying to be supersonic."
Tough thing to do when there's a new kid on the block, operating at the speed of light.
RYDER CUP ENTRANTS DROOLING FOR RORY-TIGER MATCHUP
Count Davis Love, the American captain, among those who are salivating over the potential for a Rory McIlroy-Tiger Woods Sunday singles match for all the marbles at the Ryder Cup in Chicago in late September.
At Monday's press conference to trumpet the top eight qualifiers for the American team -- Woods, Bubba Watson, Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Phil Mickelson -- Love didn't pull any punches.
"I'd want to go watch that one," Love said. "It would be nice to be able to rig them, rig a couple like that for Tiger and Rory. I'm sure they both would relish that. We have got some guys on our team that I'm sure would love to take (McIlroy) on, because you want to play the best.
"You know, the beauty of The Ryder Cup now is, is that these guys are close to us. It's not like we get on a boat and we went over there and we meet these guys and play one match every two years and didn't know who they were. These guys travel on our tour, hang out with us.
"We don't see it as Rory versus Tiger. It's U.S. versus Europe, and we are all going to be friends before and we are all going to be friends after, just maybe not quite as close for those three days."