MARANA, Ariz. – A lot has happened since that pro-am in 2005 at the British Masters when Englishman Lee Westwood met for the first time a precocious 16-year-old from Northern Ireland named Rory McIlroy.
They have stormed into prominence at the world’s biggest golf tournaments, made buckets of money for themselves and Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable, teamed to win a Ryder Cup, and become masters at zinging each other via this vehicle called Twitter.
Oh, and they’ve had a divorce of sorts – McIlroy last October bolting from the ISM group of which Westwood is the star player.
Throw all of that together, mix in a dash of media hype, and sprinkle it with the cheers from everyone within the PGA Tour and NBC communities, and what do you get? A Sunday morning semifinal between McIlroy, ranked second in the world, and Westwood, ranked third, whose relationship could be described as . . . well, tell us, boys.
“It’s OK. It’s fine,” said McIlroy, 22.
“It’s good,” said Westwood, 38.
Following their quarterfinal wins Saturday – Westwood 4 and 2 over Martin Laird; McIlroy 3 and 2 over Sang-moon Bae – the European stars crossed paths on the stairs outside the media center. Westwood was going in, McIlroy was leaving, and they stopped to exchange smiles and handshakes. At the bottom of the stairs, McIlroy met Connor Morrissey of his new management group, Horizon Sports, and the two of them chatted with Ian Garbut of ISM.
There were smiles and a few laughs, so clearly this is not a LeBron-and-Cleveland situation where T-shirts will be banned and fans denied entry.
Even if there is resentment and hard feelings, each player went out of his way to put the focus where they say it belongs: on the golf.
“It’s nice to be playing Rory, because we’re both good players,” Westwood said. “We should go out and make a lot of birdies, and it will be an exciting match for everybody to watch, I guess.”
When McIlroy saw Westwood in the morning, before their quarterfinal matches, he said he told him, “I’ll see you on the first tee tomorrow morning,” and when that came to fruition, the kid from Northern Ireland was asked just why it is that he wanted this matchup.
He insisted it’s not personal, but professional.
“I think it’s the match that most people wanted and definitely the match that I wanted,” McIlroy said. “You want to try and beat the best players.”
There was a reprieve from the angle of animosity to discuss something that is also at stake – either Westwood or McIlroy would go to No. 1 if he were to win the championship. But neither star seemed overwhelmed by that topic.
In fact, McIlroy sees danger in both players focusing so much on each other that the winner doesn’t get up for the championship (against Hunter Mahan or Mark Wilson). “You’d have to get yourself up for that again,” McIlroy said. “So all I need to do is focus on the match tomorrow morning (and not worry about being No. 1).”
Westwood shrugged, probably because he already has been No. 1, for 22 weeks on two different stints.
“He may be thinking about it,” Westwood said, “but my main goal is to play well or play as well as I’ve been playing.”
Ah, but for each of the past two days – Friday’s eight third-round matches, Saturday’s four quarterfinal games – the action has been slow, the competition lackluster. Only one of those 12 matches made it to the 18th hole, and for the first time in the 14-year history of this championship, none of the quarterfinals got to the 17th tee.
With unheralded names making noise – Mark Wilson and Peter Hanson, Bae and Laird – TV types, Accenture execs, and the leaders from Camp Ponte Vedra Beach had to be quietly and anxiously hoping for a dramatic lifeline.
Westwood vs. McIlroy is just that, arguably the most anticipated matchup this championship has ever had, because for all those times we wished for Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson, or Woods vs. an in-his-prime David Duval, or Woods vs. Vijay Singh, the goods were never delivered.
You could say they’ve saved the 2012 Accenture Match Play Championship.
Just don’t suggest that bitterness and anger and contentiousness will envelop the proceedings, but McIlroy insists that isn’t true.
“It’s totally fine,” he said again. “There’s no ill feeling between me and (Westwood) or me and Chubby or anyone. It’s all been very, very positive.”