McIlroy on top of the world in Dubai

As battle begins to decide the Order of Merit, the 20-year-old prodigy tells James Corrigan why he has decided to switch to the US tour

First he will conquer Europe – and then he will move on to the Tour which really counts. That may sound a simplistic, if not disrespectful, assessment of the career path Rory McIlroy is planning to follow, but listening to the Ulsterman here yesterday it was difficult not to conclude that this Order of Merit title would be a mere forerunner of the accolades to come Stateside.

Certainly, for the European Tour hierarchy there would have been rather too many "best fields" and "better players" descriptions in McIlroy's eve-of-tournament press conference as he outlined the reasons why he has chosen to take up membership of the PGA Tour. They would have hoped that the entirety of the focus would have fallen on this remarkable golfer's attempt to become the second-youngest winner of their money list when the inaugural staging of the Dubai World Championship begins here this morning. Yet however golden the present might seem, the future continues to promise so much more.

"I had an opportunity to join the best fields in golf," said the 20-year-old. "Most of the events I'll play over there will include Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker... I'll be playing with better players. I want to challenge myself against the best in the world."

First things first, there is the best in Europe to take care of and, although he holds a lead of more than £110,000 at the head of the standings, McIlroy's task is anything but a stroll to the £900,000 "Race to Dubai" bonus. Lee Westwood is his nearest pursuer and if the world No 5's chance is obvious then the challenges of Martin Kaymer, the 24-year-old German, and Ross Fisher, the 28-year-old Englishman, must also not be discounted. The recipient of the Harry Vardon Trophy on Sunday will emerge from this quality quartet.

Even allowing for the suspicion that a new layout which amounts to little more than a resort course will render this a glorified putting contest, Westwood is the main threat. The pair have enjoyed plenty of banter in the build-up and it is interesting that, before saying yea or nay to the Americans, McIlroy went to Westwood for advice. He also went to Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and his manager, Chubby Chandler. The fact he ignored them all shows the confidence of the lad. "I listened to my heart," he said. "The thing about Darren and Lee is that they both tried playing in America and it didn't work out. I get the feeling they would rather stay in Europe. I want to venture out and test my skills against the best in the world. Sometimes that's in America, sometimes that's over here."

So what will be the ratio? Chandler revealed yesterday that Mclroy's home tour should not be despondent. "It will be far from disastrous for the European Tour," he said. "Rory will only play a few tournaments less over here. I did think he should stay in Europe, because of the fatigue factor. But then you realise it has been his dream since he was 11 to play the PGA Tour and that his dad used to allow him to stay up late to watch it and then you think that at 20, if it all goes wrong, has he lost anything? No. I don't think he feels as if he's conquered Europe, but he wants to try the next stage. Normal rules don't apply to Rory."

Indeed, progress has occurred at a spectacular pace. McIlroy arrived in Dubai at the end of January, still living in his parents' terraced house and driving an Audi. Nine months on from his maiden win, McIlroy owns a Ferrari and is awaiting delivery of a Lamborghini. He resides in a 14-acre estate in Co Down. "When I turned pro in '07 I never thought I would get to this point so quickly," said McIlory, in just his second full season. "But after winning in Dubai I said my goal would be to try and break into the world's top 10 by the end of the year. Another good week here might get me there."

McIlroy is currently No 13 and a top-two placing would see him joining some illustrious names from both past and present. But they are names the impending European No 1 would plainly feel comfortable alongside. Here he was asked which route he would wish to take to the top – the Seve way or the Faldo way. "Nothing against Nick, but Seve had a lot more fans," said McIlroy. "He was the man." Ballesteros also happened to be the boy who won the Order of Merit when he was just 19. The precedents genuinely are that giddying.

TV: Sky Sports 1/HD1 (08:00-13:00)

Order of Merit: How they stand

Rory McIlroy First – £2,274,188

Will take the crown regardless of how he plays if Westwood is outside the top seven, Kaymer the top four and Fisher the top two.

Lee Westwood Second – £2,159,359

Cannot be stopped if he wins. If second he will be champion if McIlroy is not first or tied second and Kaymer does not win.

Martin Kaymer Third – £2,089,718

Cannot be stopped if he wins. If he is second he will be champion if McIlroy and Westwood are not first or tied second and Fisher does not win.

Ross Fisher Fourth – £1,885,904

Has to finish first or second just to have a chance. If he wins he will still be denied if McIlroy or Westwood finishes second.

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