|McIlroy on facing Westwood: 'It's the match that I wanted and I think everyone else wanted.' (AP)|
MARANA, Ariz. -- It's hard to pinpoint where the fissure first formed.
There often seemed to be an undercurrent to their barbs, either in person or via their oft-used Twitter accounts, where Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy have both toasted, and roasted, one another over the past couple of years.
At some point, it went a bit sour, either when McIlroy won the U.S. Open last year, or when he quit the management stable that boasted the two of them as top clients.
|Accenture Match Play|
Or maybe it was an unintentional compendium of other things, the rough-edged caprices of youth.
Two years ago, after McIlroy won at Quail Hollow for his first PGA Tour victory, Westwood and caddie Billy Foster waited after the round for the Irish youngster, then 20, to finish the round, a stunning 62.
They were stationed in a hospitality tent and emerged just as McIlroy had finished the 18th hole with a 30-foot birdie bomb and was fairly floating to the scorer's area to sign his card. Westy extended a hearty handshake. McIlroy, giddy and gushing, looked at Westwood and chirped, "Now that's how you finish off a tournament."
True, McIlroy at that point in his career had struggled to seal the deal. But a couple of weeks earlier, Westwood had done exactly the opposite, losing the 54-hole lead to eventual winner Phil Mickelson. Westwood, drink in hand and sunglasses on, nonetheless grinned as McIlroy headed off to collect his cash desserts.
So, whether there was a smoking gun, or it was death by a thousand tiny cutting insults, the relationship deteriorated to the point where the British tabloids last fall were taking note of when McIlroy clicked the "unfollow" button on Westwood's Twitter account.
Once perceived to be a big-brother figure, Westwood, 38, will attempt to provide a parental paddling of his younger ex-stablemate in the semifinals Saturday at the Accenture Match Play Championship, with the world's No. 1 ranking on the line for both.
"It's the match that I wanted and I think everyone else wanted," McIlroy said moments after beating South Korea's Sung-moon Bae, 3 and 2, in the quarterfinal.
Speaking for darned likely most of the Western world, not to mention everybody televising the event at NBC Sports, let me add an emphatic, oh my god, yes. Rory and Westy are ranked second and third in the world, and with the back story, this is the marquee matchup few dared dream about when the brackets were first issued. Put it this way -- a pair of long-proven Americans, Hunter Mahan and Mark Wilson, play in the other Accenture semifinal, and it's a safe bet that not much newsprint will be expended setting up that tilt.
Oh, to be a reader of the London tabloids today. This time, the saucy headline writers won't need to put words into anyone's mouth, either. If either wins in the morning and again in the afternoon final, he becomes No. 1.
"It gives the match a little extra spice," McIlroy said.
Yeah, like putting Tabasco on wasabi.
As one of McIlroy's countrymen put it, even when McIlroy and Westy were still palling around last year and trading barbs about dumb things like McIlroy's artificially frosted locks, it was like they were tossing about "jokes with jabs," Graeme McDowell said. When they crossed paths outside the locker room before the Saturday quarterfinal matches, McIlroy said to Westwood, "I'll see you on the first tee tomorrow [Sunday]." When he saw Westy after they'd both advanced, he reiterated it.
"That's the trouble with kids nowadays, they think they're always right, don't they?" Westwood cracked.
Hey, leave me out of it.
Whether it was a clash of egos, the king of the pride defending his territory against the young lion, the abruptness of McIlroy's defection from a management firm that included Westwood as a client, some combination of the three or absolutely none of the above, it provided plenty of grist for the golf mill last fall -- not long after McIlroy had won the U.S. Open title in stunning fashion.
Even before McIlroy bolted Chubby Chandler's sports agency, ISM, where Westwood is the top dog in the pecking order, for Dublin-based management firm Horizon Sports, Westwood had not often missed a chance to give the 22-year-old the needle. When McIlroy blew the 54-hole lead at the Masters last year, Westy said, "I have played with Rory and he does snap-hook under pressure."
When McIlroy led after 54 holes of the U.S. Open, just weeks after the Masters meltdown, Westwood said: "They don't give trophies away on Fridays and Saturdays."
None of that is really unusual, given characteristically Westwood's whistling wit, which he practices on friends, family, caddies and media. But there seemed to be an undercurrent with the McIlroy comments suggesting that, just perhaps, the youngster wasn't quite as deferential toward the veteran as he could have been.
Maybe it was never the bromance that some made it out to be. When asked if it was fair to characterize Westwood -- whom he first met in a practice round at the 2005 British Masters -- as a mentor, McIlroy said, "To be honest, not really." Instead, he mentioned Nick Faldo and Darren Clarke as the more influential figures in his early development.
"There's no ill feeling between me and him, and Chubby," McIlroy said, all but shrugging.
Both players said they are not as close as they used to be, but suggested the mood change relates mostly to business, not anything interpersonal.
"We don't spend as much time together as we did when we were in the same management group, but that's understandable," said Westwood, who has twice been ranked No. 1 in 2010-11. "Rory doesn't want to spend time with the people that manage me, and I don't want to spend time with the people that manage Rory. But there's nothing strained about the relationship between the two of us. It's still the same as it was."
Devil's advocate question: Same as it ever was, or same as it never was?
When McIlroy bolted from the ISM management stable, it caused a few gasps, especially since he had just completed a lengthy tour of the Orient with several of the firm's top players, including Westy, having been squired around the countries in small planes together.
"Bizarre decision," Westwood quickly Tweeted.
As McDowell put it four months ago, "It's great, very ironic," McDowell told the Irish Golf Desk website in late October. "They've played plenty of golf together and I know they are both very competitive. They'll want to be out there and beat each other up -- obviously from the golf point of view."
McDowell grinned at the last part.
"It's an unusual one, but things change," he said.
Quickly, in fact. The interpersonal back story is hardly the only chip on the table to be won. McIlroy has never been ranked No. 1, but has a major to his credit. Westwood has twice been ranked first in the world, but hasn't won a major.
"I think it's very evenly matched," McIlroy said.
Oh, they actually plan to play golf, too? Kidding, mostly.
Playing along with an obviously loaded question, Westwood was asked if he viewed his former stablemate as something of a "precocious" kid brother who occasionally needed a kick in the butt to be kept in line.
"I'd have to go and get a dictionary and find out the definition of precocious first before I answer that question," Westwood smirked.
Forget the definition.
The personification of the word will be waiting for him on the first tee at Dove Mountain on Sunday morning.