Another day brought another surreal moment for young Rory McIlroy yesterday. Twenty-four hours after winning his first professional title in Dubai, the teenage sensation of European golf revealed that he has been invited to play a practice round with Tiger Woods at the Masters in April. And there is little wonder that he sounded so excited by the prospect.
If anyone is going to show you around the notorious intricacies of Augusta on your first playing visit there, then it might as well be the man who cracked its code younger than anyone else in history. When Woods won the Masters in 1997, as a 21-year-old, the promise was that no one would be breaking his record. The perceived wisdom remains that McIlroy will need at least one outing between the pines of Georgia before he too can don a green jacket, the odds on him winning his first major are dropping by the week.
Woods, for one, has long recognised a comparative talent, having invited the then 17-year-old to play in his charity tournament, the Target World Challenge, in 2007. (McIlroy actually turned him down on that occasion as he was still trying to win his card.) But even Woods would surely have been stunned by the recent progress of the young Northern Irishman, culminating in his dramatic one-shot triumph at the Desert Classic on Sunday. Especially when his best friend gets on the blower.
Mark O'Meara partnered McIlroy in the first two rounds at Dubai and, after declaring to the media that "Rory is a better ball-striker at 19 than Tiger was", vowed to inform Woods on his return all about the youngster shooting up the rankings. He was also to tell him that he has arranged a personal viewing at the year's first major. "Mark said he would set it up for me to play a practice round with Tiger at Augusta – if Tiger's there, of course – and that'll be incredible," said McIlroy. "It'll be great as I'm also playing with Ernie [Els] on the Tuesday there."
It may be odd for a bushy-haired youth to accept that he is now moving in such exalted circles, but McIlroy has an advantage in knowing that his whole life has been geared towards this. Having hit a 40-yard drive at the age of two, McIlroy's rise has been as relentless as it has been startling, and so comfortable does he feel with his new status that at Sunday's prize-giving he turned to Matthew Turner, the 17-year-old Englander who had taken the Best Amateur honours, and said: "I sat in that seat two years ago. So that just proves what you can do."
What McIlroy can do next is one of the sport's more exciting talking points. Certainly his last five months suggest anything and everything is possible. Since the end of August – when his frustration at what he considered to be a slow start to his profession threatened to boil over – he has played 12 tournaments , finished in the top 10 eight times, won more than £1m and watched his world ranking improve from 172nd to No 16.
In that time, he has become the youngest player to have ever entered the top 20 and the youngest professional to have qualified for the Masters. It is no exaggeration to label McIlroy the world's "form player" and the next hurdle to be nonchalantly negotiated is eminently clear – America.
"My next event is the World Match Play in Tucson at the end of this month," said McIlroy, "and after that I play three more over there before the Masters. I played a lot of junior golf in America, but this will be uncharted water. It's a new challenge, but one I'm ready to take on. It's amazing. It was my goal this year to make the world's top 20. I've done that by the first week of February. So this next few weeks I'll have to reassess where I go from here."
Rory's roaring dozen: Million-pound run
*In his last 12 tournaments, Rory McIlroy has earned more than £1m, recorded eight top-10 finishes and seen his world ranking improve from 172 to 16.
7 Sept Omega European Masters, 2nd
28 Sept Quinn Insurance British Masters, 39th
5 Oct Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, 8th
19 Oct Portugal Masters, 10th
26 Oct Castello Masters, 9th
2 Nov Volvo Masters, 39th
23 Nov UBS Hong Kong Open, 2nd
14 Dec Alfred Dunhill Championship, 71st
21 Dec South African Open, 3rd
18 Jan Abu Dhabi Championship 5th,
25 Jan Qatar Masters, 46th
1 Feb Dubai Desert Classic, 1st