As if the Ryder Cup needed any more edge in its long and sometime acrimonious history, so Tiger Woods squares up to Rory McIlroy. The world No 1 is angry with the young Ulsterman for picking him out as America's weak link here this week and is determined to make the upstart pay for his insolence.
Woods has already let the 21-year-old know of his intentions. At the BMW Championship in Chicago three weeks ago he confronted McIlroy in the clubhouse and told him: "Be careful what you wish for." It was not uttered in jest, but in a cool manner which many will inevitably compare to notorious gangsters of that city.
McIlroy made his provocative comments last month as Woods continued to struggle with his game. "I would love to face Tiger," he told the BBC. "Unless his game rapidly improves in the next month or so, I think anyone in the European team would fancy his chances against him."
Woods has shown in the past how unwise it is for a rival to question his ability. There are a list of victims who have done so and then been shot down by Woods, including Stephen Ames, Rory Sabbatini and, perhaps most pertinently, Colin Montgomerie when Tiger was on his way to winning his first major – by 12 strokes. Will McIlroy be the next to find out the hard way? Judging by Woods' remarks yesterday, he will.
"What was your reaction when Rory said he would very much like to play against you in the Ryder Cup?" came the question. "Me, too," came the reply. "Care to elaborate?" "Nope," said Tiger. He didn't have to. The smile followed by the cold stare said it all.
It was delicious theatre as a little earlier, McIlroy had sat in the very same chair and tried to put his "Tiger taunt" into context. "You've got to realise I said those things the week after he'd shot 18-over at Akron," said McIlroy. "He wasn't playing too well at the time. He's obviously getting his game together now."
Whether McIlroy's explanation will assuage Woods is dubious, although the suspicion must be it probably won't when he hears what McIlroy said later: "For the meantime, I supposed a little of Tiger's aura has gone." Woods has shown a particular fondness of making his golfing battles personal and that is why Montgomerie may wish to revise what many took to be his running order and not put McIlroy and his Northern Irish compadre, Graeme McDowell, first off in the Friday fourballs.
Woods will beg Corey Pavin to find the pride of Ulster in the opening morning's draw and the US captain could find it irresistible to allow the vengeful Tiger – probably in partnership with Steve Stricker – to start off the defence of the Cup. Montgomerie may also consider what the inevitable hyping of this new enmity could do to a rookie such as McIlroy and what effect a big defeat could have on both teams. Monty may well decide to tuck away the world No 9 down the order.
This was just one of a number of dilemmas the Scot was having to mull over last night after the first official day of practice. At least he could content himself with the two members of his team who have most to prove. With three birdies in the first four holes and five more thereafter, Lee Westwood surely removed any doubts about his fitness. "He's not played in six or seven weeks and he starts ripping the ball like that," said Montgomerie, referring to the world No 3's calf injury. "I'm very excited about Lee this week."
But the breathless praise was reserved for the controversial wild-card selection. Padraig Harrington received the nod over the world No 7, Paul Casey, despite not having won for two years. Montgomerie was accused of many things in the immediate aftermath of his announcement, including of "picking his reputation" and, most pointedly, of "picking his mate". Now, he feels able to hit back at the naysayers.
"The criticism was very unjustified," he said. "There are reasons why Padraig Harrington was picked. Judge me on that selection on October 4 and not on September 26."
In Montgomerie's mind his decision has already been vindicated. "I met him when he arrived on Sunday evening," he said, detailing how the Dubliner hotfooted it over from the Vivendi Cup after closing with a 64, his best score of the year. "He walked into the Celtic Manor as if he was a rookie – fantastic – and was really up about the whole thing. He has been since. He's playing the best golf on my team. He's a world player, he's won three major championships and the stature of the guy is second to none within our team."
It wasn't only Monty doing the crooning. Poulter and Ross Fisher played against Harrington and Luke Donald and ended up "being cleaned out" by the Irishman's brilliance. "He played exceptionally well, making two eagles and horseshoeing a 40-foot putt to make it three," said Poulter. "It [the wild-card criticisms] has revved him up. It's great for the team, but bad for my pocket."
There were hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds being handed over in bets here yesterday – among both sets of players. For Europe the pairings seem set with Montgomerie going with the duos he mentioned last week. McIlroy-McDowell, Westwood-Martin Kaymer, Poulter-Fisher, Harrington-Donald, the Molinari brothers and Miguel Angel Jimenez and Peter Hanson... there were no surprises. Neither were there with the golf course, with its thick rough and slow greens which clearly favours the home team. "Are they slow enough for you?" Monty was heard to ask Westwood, with a laugh.
They will certainly not be to Woods' taste. "They are a bit slow and will probably get even slower," he said. If only the same could be said about his competitive spirit. McIlroy is in danger of discovering it remains razor sharp.
Four players left to regret taunting the Tiger
Before the first round of the World Match Play Championship in 2006, Ames was asked about the chances of beating his opponent. "Anything can happen," he said. "Especially where Tiger's hitting the ball." Woods did not take kindly to this seemingly innocuous remark. The next day the No 1 seed won nine of the first 10 holes, inflicting on the No 64 seed a record beating. When asked what his reaction was to Ames's comments, Woods said: "9&8".
When Woods walked on to the first tee at the 2000 Presidents Cup he could not fail to see the wording on the baseball cap of his opponent's caddie: "Tiger Who?". Paul Tesori, Vijay Singh's bagman, only meant it as a joke, but Tiger didn't see it that way. There was no laughter, just a stern face and an even sterner lesson. Woods proceeded to beat Singh three out of the four times he played him. "It was a naive thing to do," Tesori later said. "It was a life lesson."
The Scot was paired with Tiger Woods in the final group of the third round of The Masters in 1997. "We'll see what he's made of," said Montgomerie, who was trailing the Major rookie by three shots. "My experience could be a key factor." In the event Woods outscored Monty by nine shots, 65-74. After the round he was asked whether the Scot had provided unwitting motivation. "You bet," replied the 21-year-old. Woods went on to win the title by a record 12 shots.
Another Rory – the outspoken South African – said that Tiger was "more beatable than ever" four days after Woods had beaten him in the final round of the Wachovia Championship in 2007. "I want Tiger," said Sabbatini. "There were a few fortuitous occasions that changed the round for him. That gives me confidence to go in and play with him on Sunday again." He played with him on a Sunday two months later in Bridgestone. He was beaten 65-74. "That was fun," said Tiger.Reuse content