Rory v Tiger – let battle commence
Woods desperate to play down rivalry but it is all anyone can think about at WGC Championship
In a complex game, in a crowded scenario, it is far too simplistic to declare that this WGC-Cadillac Championship will be a case of Tiger versus Rory. But it is also too irresistible. There is a palpable sense of excitement that a classic battle of the generations will begin in earnest here these next four days, with Woods and McIlroy at its core.
Everyone with even a cursory interest in golf is feeling their pulse racing as the boy king prepares to withstand the challenge of the man who could rightly claim to be the greatest king of all. Well, everyone except Tiger, that is. He was at his guarded best to ensure he didn't add any fuel to the hype of a burgeoning rivalry between himself and the Ulsterman 14 years his junior, who as a kid in short trousers would endlessly watch a video of his 1997 Masters revolution. Tiger is not for spinning.
"Every year is exciting for me," said the 14-time major winner yesterday when he was asked whether this was the most exciting time in golf since he was rewriting the record books at the turn of the Millennium. Woods tried to show that he's seen it all before. "I've been in this situation," said Woods, whose final-round 62 at the Honda Classic on Sunday threatened at least to stall McIlroy's inexorable rise to world No 1. "It was Vijay [Singh], myself, Phil [Mickelson], Ernie [Els] and Retief [Goosen] all going for it for a number of years. So now it's just a different crop of guys."
Of course, the difference is greater than merely that of the names of the individuals. Golf has not witnessed a player as young as McIlroy scale its summit since Woods as a 21-year-old back in 1997. And when one considers everything that Woods has been through – the sex scandal, the ridicule, the back-of-the-field ignominy as a radical swing overhaul took its time to bed in – it is almost perverse for him to suggest that this is business as usual. The fact is that Woods is trying to return to pre-eminence with a mini-me figure blocking his path.
But then, McIlroy is the cheese to Woods's chalk. The contrast in their personas is stark to the brink of being opposite. The odious comparisons are inevitable for Tiger as this accessible young man wins admirers in the galleries and the media alike. McIlroy provides insight whereas Woods puts up barriers. No doubt, the latter has been subjected to the glare of a spotlight which, no one, not even Jack Nicklaus, has experienced. Yet he must know the critics will pay that truth no heed when it comes to bashing him with McIlroy's generous spirit.
The 22-year-old's press conference here in the media centre on Tuesday night was everything that Woods' next to the 18th green was not. McIlroy declared his love of the limelight and spoke of his determination to embrace all the attention, not fight it. "I'm not saying I'm an attention seeker but I feel like I do thrive in the spotlight," he said. "I'd love to keep myself as world No 1 for a while. The way I look at it is that you must be doing it right if you're under the spotlight."
Apart from the garish jumper he wore at a charity tennis match at Madison Square Garde, New York, on Monday night, McIlroy can do no wrong at the moment. It isn't simply the tremendous run – during which he has won twice as he has recorded 10 top-five finishes in his last 11 tournaments – that has made him so appealing. Of course, his free-flowing swing is a natural beauty to behold. But there is an X-factor which defines him and, unlike Tiger, is not based on intimidation or awe.
"Tiger gives out this aura where everything is just so focused and so, you know, it's like, 'I'm going to rip your head off on that first tee'," said McIlroy. "I thought that's what I needed to do to win a major. But I quickly found out that isn't me and that isn't how I play my best golf."
McIlroy is not saying that there is a correct way and an incorrect way to play, merely that there is his way. Yes, as a child he was fascinated with Woods and was inspired by his achievements. But, as all the grand pronouncements are being made about his potential to be "the new Tiger" – McIlroy makes it his mission to continue on his own merry path.
"I'll let other people make the comparisons," he said. "I've never said I wanted to be the next anyone. I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy. I never set out to win 14 majors like Tiger did. I've always just wanted to win golf tournaments, ultimately to win majors and to be No 1 in the world. I've been lucky enough to win a major [last year's US Open] and get to No 1. But there's a long road ahead and I feel like I can accomplish a lot more."
Woods feels the same, only the road stretches not nearly so far. He remains four shy of Nicklaus's record major haul, but has not enjoyed an "official" win in the two years plus since the sordid revelations about his private life emerged. Throughout this time he has maintained that the blank was solely to do with the "process" of the swing changes under his new coach, Sean Foley. And, now, as the memory burns bright red of his Sunday best at the PGA National four days ago, his insistence that it will come right eventually seems more valid than ever.
Yet the landscape has altered in those 28 months. It was inconceivable to think there would come a time when Woods would shoot a 62 and then in his next round tee it up as anything other than the favourite to prevail. But Ladbrokes quote McIlroy at 6-1 to win his first WGC title here and Woods at 7-1.
The market does not only include that pair, however, and in the English duo Lee Westwood (14-1) and Luke Donald (20-1) McIlroy has two partners in his threeball teeing off today at 11.50am (4.50pm GMT) who could turn it into a one-week reign for him at the top of the world order.
Depending on McIlroy's performance around the Blue Monster (as this course is known), Donald might need only to finish in the top four to claim back his throne at the first attempt, while Westwood must win the tournament.
Both Englishmen are well capable of doing so – as is Mickelson of following up last month's win at Pebble Beach – but still the possibility that thrills most of all is a head-to-head duel between Tiger and Rory. The man who had everything against the kid with it all.
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