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McIlroy whips up a desert storm

With Tiger and Mickleson absent, the Ulsterman is the talk of the Tucson matchplay

One of Geoff Ogilvy's more thankless duties as defending champion of the WGC World Match Play Championship has been to promote an event in serious danger of suffering under-exposure in the Arizona desert. Why come along when there's no Tiger Woods to watch? Simple, asserts the shrewd Australian. Come along and watch the next Tiger Woods.

"In 20 years' time, when Rory's won 10 majors, you can tell your friends, 'Hey, I saw Rory play when he was 20 years old in Tucson'," says Ogilvy.

A brave attempt, yet as it happens the locals will not require much hyping to turn up to cheer McIlroy in his first-round match against Kevin Na this morning. They fell in love with the Belfast boy when he made his professional debut in America here last year and since that run to the quarter-finals the clamour to have him back has grown. That this happens to be McIlroy's first tournament as a fully paid-up PGA Tour member has only made his status as the stand-in poster boy that bit more inevitable. He is seeded No 5. But in so many other respects, he is No 1.

If McIlroy required any further reminders of how much his life has changed in the last 12 months then it was provided at Tucson airport on Sunday night. In 2009, he had walked through the same terminal unnoticed and unknown (to the ever-insular American sport fan, anyway). "This time around," reported his manager, Chubby Chandler, yesterday, "everybody recognised him. This place has really taken him to their heart. It was mental here last year and it carried on the next week in the Honda. It was almost pop-starish."

In all that hoopla, the suspicion was that Team McIlroy would not be able to resist the lure of the greenback and would soon go full-time in Stateside. It hasn't happened that way, despite McIlroy taking up the offer of PGA Tour membership. "Rory doesn't want a base over here," revealed Chandler. "He still wants to grow up at home. Two-week stints over here are enough for him."

There is another reason, however, why his transatlantic trips will continue to be limited. In the last few weeks, a worrying story has emerged of a McIlroy back problem, one that was predictably quick to be given "career-threatening" billing. After two close finishes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, McIlroy was flown back to his home city to undergo a scan. As Chandler now explains, the trip was not as ominous as it sounded.

"Rory had his first scan three years ago and since then he's been having them every six months," he said. "That's why we know we're on top of it. In a way it's a good thing he knows about this now and that he has been told he would have a big problem if he didn't do something about it. He can manage it."

To this end, McIlroy has a physiotherapist travelling with him; giving an hour of treatment before he goes out and an hour afterwards. He will not play more than three tournaments in a row, two if he can help it. It has forced McIlroy to be almost savagely single-minded when drawing up his schedule. For the second year running he has turned down Arnold Palmer's offer of a place in the Bay Hill Invitational. In these Tigerless times everybody wants a piece of McIlroy – and the understandable fear is that if he isn't careful there will not be enough pieces to go around.

The stretched ligaments in his back have been linked to the radical hip movement McIlroy makes in his swing. Yet he is not about to alter the motion which has taken him into the world's top 10 in record time. "I can't change," he told a press conference here on Monday. "I've swung this way since I was two. This is actually fine compared to what it used to be. I remember in the summer before the [2007] Walker Cup it was really bad. It comes and goes. If I play a couple of weeks in a row it's fine. Three and I can feel it a little bit. The fourth week it starts to hurt. In the motion of swinging a club it's fine, but it's like picking the ball out of the hole and teeing the ball up and stuff. I just have to think about what way I have to do it, but it's not painful. It's like a niggle."

There is another niggle consuming McIlroy at the moment and one that could easily be alleviated at the Dove Mountain course in a format which plainly suits his wonderfully unreconstructed, gung-ho spirit. Many might be of the opinion that if a 20-year-old should really not have a back problem then he should also really not have a mind doctor. Yet as McIlroy surveys a results sheet which is marked as much by its startling consistency (10 top-seven placings in his last 12 events) as it is by its paucity of professional victories (one) he is on the brink of resorting to a route he had, in his own words, "pooh-poohed in the past".

"Yeah, I've talked to Chubby about it and it couldn't hurt," admitted McIlroy, whose fallibility over the short putts continues to cost him dear. "Most guys do not see mental coaches when they're playing poorly. But I want to be able to turn these top fives and top threes into wins. Maybe, that can take me on to the next stage."

Well as stages go, this one happens to straight from Sergio Leone's Wild West dreams. The old Spaghetti Westerns always favoured the kid in a shootout and if McIlroy can emerge here on Sunday evening as the last man standing his legend will know no bounds.

"Rory was hailed as the next big star in Europe last year and is now being hailed as the next big star in the States this year," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington. "I don't think it's going to put any extra pressure on Rory. It's what he wants. In fact he's loving it. His attitude is terrific; he really loves playing golf and has the same enthusiasm for it that he had as a boy."

Duelling in the desert: Brit pack in Tucson

Lee Westwood (2)

Stalwart of six Ryder Cups is the second seed after Phil Mickelson's withdrawal. Englishman is Europe's No 1 after winning inaugural "Race to Dubai" last year.

Paul Casey (6)

Englishman who won old World Matchplay at Wentworth in comprehensive fashion. Won twice on US Tour last season before a rib injury, which the world No 7 has nearly fully recovered from.

Ian Poulter (9)

Known first for his colourful outfits, but since starring as a captain's pick in the 2008 Ryder Cup, his game is staring to justify the hype.

WGC World Matchplay: Today's tee times

Selected first-round matches

2.45pm L Donald (Eng) v G McDowell (N Irl)

3.14 I Poulter (Eng) v J Leonard (US)

3.52 R McIlroy (N Irl) v K Na (US)

4.01 M A Jimenez (Sp) v O Wilson (Eng)

4.11 P Casey (Eng) v S Ames (Can)

4.30 P Harrington (Irl) v J M Singh (Ind)

5.27 S O'Hair (US) v S Dyson (Eng)

5.55 R Fisher (Eng) v T Jaidee (Thai)

7.21 L Westwood (Eng) v C Wood (Eng)