Most accidents, we are told, happen in the home. But for the superstars of professional golf, the front drive seems especially treacherous. Weeks after his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods, bounced his car off a fire hydrant and rammed a tree in his neighbour's front garden, Rory McIlroy slid his powerful Audi R6 sports car through a hedge into next door's cabbage patch.
When the irony of his New Year's Eve mishap is pointed out, the 20-year-old says: "I didn't have anyone chasing me!" Instead, compacted snow had made an ice rink of the driveway at his luxury Co Down home and McIlroy simply span off.
"I was crawling down the driveway," he explains. "There's a sharp left-hand bend and as I braked to turn into it, the car just slid. As it did, I thought to myself, 'I know where this is going' – straight into the hedge. I ended up in the neighbour's cabbage patch." There was one consolation. He had left his spanking new Lamborghini in the garage.
If only all bizarre car accidents could be so innocent. A fan of Woods since he was six and first glimpsed the young Tiger on telly at the 1996 US Amateur Championship, McIlroy admitts he was taken aback by the revelations that followed Tiger's crash that fateful November night in Orlando. "Even I was disappointed when I heard what happened," he says. "Everyone thought 'Aw no'. They were shocked because, obviously, he'd been doing it for a while."
Although his stunning form and rocket-like rise into the world's top 10 suggest he has a lot in common with Woods, the youngster from Holywood, a suburb of Belfast, believes a solid piece of advice given to him by his father, Gerry, when he was 12 should help him steer clear of pitfalls in his future career. "Dad always told me when I was growing up, 'There's always someone watching,'" recalls McIlroy, who had a notoriously short fuse in his early days on the course. "We were talking about bad temper, throwing clubs and all that stuff when I was trying to get on Irish teams. He said, 'It doesn't matter what you are doing or where, you can be certain somebody is going to see you.'"
It is a lesson McIlroy has brought with him into the limelight of elite professional sport: think carefully before you act because you are almost certain to be called to account for anything you do. While he expects recent calamitous events will make Woods appear less invincible to rivals on his return from his "indefinite break", McIlroy believes Tiger will still achieve his lifelong ambition and top the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
"I always viewed Tiger as a great golfer," he says, when asked if his opinion of Woods has changed. "Whenever I was watching him on television, I didn't care what he was like as a person – to me he was just an awesome golfer. He's still a great golfer in everyone's eyes – he's just run into a bit of difficulty.
"I can relate to him in one way," he adds, explaining that the more famous a sportsman becomes, the easier it is "to get into something like that, while the more successful you get, you almost feel as if you are invincible in some way."
McIlroy hopes Woods will return sooner rather than later, both for his sake and his sport. "In the short term, it'll be OK for golf that he's absent but the longer he's away, the worse it'll be," he says. "It's OK if he's away for three months, six months, whatever but the sooner he comes back the better. When he does, we can all put this debacle behind us and get back to concentrating on Tiger playing great golf as he always does."
After a five-week break over the festive season, McIlroy returns to competitive action in today's first round of the Abu Dhabi Championship, alongside the likes of Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter. Many regard the start of the Desert Swing as the beginning of the European Tour season proper and McIlroy goes in with three wishes for 2010. Over the next 12 months, he is determined to break into the world's top five; convert a remarkable 13 top-five finishes last season into multiple tournament victories to go with his maiden Tour success in Dubai last February; and become a leading contender at the four majors.
That is some wish-list, but McIlroy has the game and the mental strength to deliver in his first season as a true "world player" with full playing credentials on both the European and PGA Tours.
His commitment to 15 events on the American schedule will mean McIlroy playing fewer in Europe, yet he still hopes to go one better than last November's dramatic second place to Lee Westwood in the inaugural Race to Dubai. "Though I'll play maybe two or three less European Tour events, if I can turn some of last year's top-fives into a win, that'd make a huge difference," he says. "Obviously, the big purses at all the majors and world championships can help, so the Race to Dubai is still a big goal of mine."
McIlroy learnt a lot about himself last year as he made the cut in all the majors, capped off with an impressive third behind YE Yang and Woods in August's USPGA at Hazeltine. Meanwhile, a draining run of seven tournaments in eight weeks at the end of the season indicated where his physical limits lie and introduced him to a new concept: complete rest. Exhaustion clearly was a factor as a viral infection, compounded by food poisoning, forced McIlroy to withdraw on the Saturday morning from the campaign-ending Nedbank Challenge. Indeed, he had looked so wretched on TV during that event in South Africa's Sun City that his mother, Rosemary, "was ringing my dad on his mobile telling him – 'Get him off that golf course.'"
Since first picking up a golf club as a toddler, McIlroy had never taken a break from the sport but dire need led to five idyllic weeks at home. He kept his clubs in the bag and his feet on the sofa. "It was lovely to spend time with Holly [his girlfriend], Mum, Dad and the dog, just chilling out, not having to concentrate on winning over the next couple of weeks or getting into the top five, all the stuff that goes through your head when you're on Tour. You then realise when you get back, how lucky you are to be out here doing this for a living."
Keep your circus off the course, Tiger told by Ogilvy
When Tiger Woods does decide to face the din caused by his extra-marital activities he should think of his rivals. That is the belief of Geoff Ogilvy, who yesterday urged the world No 1 to make his first press conference away from the fairways.
"Tiger should actually come out in public before, and not at a golf tournament," said the Australian on the eve of the Abu Dhabi Championship. "Out of respect for the other golfers, and to defuse the circus part of it. The first press conference is going to be crazy and I don't believe a lot of tournaments want all the tabloid media floating around."
Woods is widely believed to be in a sex addiction clinic, which will only add to the intrigue when he returns. Wherever that may be, Ogilvy thinks his rivals will not be keen to play in the same group. "There's going to be a lot of stuff going on when he comes back," said the world No 9. "It would probably not be ideal to have to play with him."