McIlroy set for push to pip Donald

 

Dubai

First he will try to take care of the world's best, Luke Donald, then he will face up to the resurrected might of the world's greatest, Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy may be suffering the after-effects of a virus, but he is even more gripped by the fever running through golf.

The 22-year-old was one of the stars of the game's Super Sunday three days ago. Indeed, his celebration when finally winning the Hong Kong Open, a title he always craved, almost rivalled that of Woods at the Chevron World Challenge for euphoria. With Lee Westwood, the world No 3, also prevailing in South Africa there were so many heavyweights landing blows it was difficult to know where to look. Yet like most people, it was the fist pump in California which made the biggest impression on McIlroy.

"December is a month when usually not that much is happening in golf," said the Ulsterman here at the Earth course yesterday. "But it was great to see Tiger back. It was very, very impressive the way he birdied the last two holes when he needed to. That's something that stays with you; that instinct and that will to win when you have to. It looks like his game is really getting back into shape. The next year is going to be an exciting time for golf."

Try the next month. This Arabian Desert will play host to the world's top four competing for the Dubai World Championship this week and then in January, will host the same quartet again – plus Woods. The Abu Dhabi Championship is Tiger's next appearance following his first win in more than two years, and already the anticipation is building. For McIlroy it might even represent a lifelong ambition.

"If I was to come up against Tiger on a Sunday it would be the biggest challenge of my career," said McIlroy, a self-confessed "Tiger geek" as a schoolboy. "It would be a huge learning curve for me just to see how I would handle it. It's not something I have experienced, or any of my generation have experienced. And it would be just great to have the opportunity to do so."

McIlroy would obviously wish to be 100 per cent for such a confrontation. This week he is anything but. Clearly drained, McIlroy paid a visit to the doctor on Monday for tests. "My white blood cell count was very low after I picked up a virus on holiday a few weeks ago and we're just seeing if the count is back up again," he said. There are, however, certain other counts which need no medical examination to be revelatory.

This is McIlroy's 11th week away from home, since the end of September when his wheelbarrow was fitted with twin jets and propellers. He has racked up the miles almost as quickly as he has the greenback. McIlroy has won twice in this period and conservative estimates say he has picked up £6m in prize money and appearance fees. Yet while the coffers are brimming, the energy tank is nearing empty. "I've nobody to blame but myself, but it's not something you'll be seeing me doing next year, that's for sure," said McIlroy.

It's not about the money; golfers of McIlroy's stature are prone to repeat this with the same conviction as Jessie J. And when one sees the pale countenance and hollow eyes, it is hard to be cynical as he tries to summon one last push to win an Order of Merit title he has coveted since being beaten at the post by Westwood here two years ago. "As an achievement it would only rank second this year behind winning my first major," said the US Open champion. "But there's a long, long way to go before any of that happens. I have to beat a top-class field and Luke [Donald] would have to finish outside the top nine. He's hardly done that this year."

McIlroy is sensible to be realistic. The chances are that even if he did win the £790,000 first prize then Donald would guarantee his £690,000 lead coming into this season finale was enough of a cushion to win the near £1m Race to Dubai jackpot and so make him the first player to win the US and European money lists in the same year. In the standings and the rankings, the Englishman is the man. Yet there will be a bushy-haired world No 2 playing alongside him in tomorrow's first round who is unashamedly desperate to ensure he doesn't remain an inferior in any golfing pecking order for too lengthy a time.

"Luke's been so consistent in the last 18 months," said McIlroy. "He's won five times, all of them big events, and as I said has rarely been outside the top 10, if ever. He's deservedly the No 1 ranked player on the money lists and in the world. But, you know, I feel I'm playing well and I will be trying my best to overtake him. At least by winning last week I've made it interesting here. I've still got a slim chance. And it would be a great way to finish a great year." For McIlroy and golf both.

Rory's ups and downs

Highs

June Won US Open. Sets record total of 16-under par.

August Begins dating tennis world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

December Takes almost £300,000 for winning the Hong Kong Open.

Lows

April Takes lead into final day of the Masters but crumbles.

July Favourite to win The Open but struggled at Sandwich.

October Split with manager Chubby Chandler attracts criticism.

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