Rory McIlroy chose the perfect day on which to perform his young Tiger Woods impersonation. With the 14-time major winner looking on, his would-be heir performed golfing alchemy by turning a 72 into a 67 to take the first-day lead in the Abu Dhabi Championship yesterday.
What made McIlroy's great escape seem even greater was Woods did the opposite. A 70 to lie three off the pace was hardly disastrous, but when he analysed his stats afterwards he realised the number should have been so much smaller. He missed only four fairways, hit 17 out of 18 greens in regulation – but took 34 putts. Rory missed eight fairways, hit just 12 greens in regulation – but took 25 putts. And therein tells the story of this pair's opening to the 2012 season.
"It felt the same as it had from Oz [Australia] to the Chevron World Challenge to here," Woods said of the most recent tournaments he played before taking the festive break. "I controlled my ball all day and just had a hard time getting a feel for these greens. Rory didn't quite hit the ball as he would like, but he chipped and putted well. It was good to watch."
For "good" read tortuous as McIlroy forced him to peer at his former self. The penultimate hole [the eighth] was a classic momentum-turner of the Tiger variety. Woods was 60 yards off the par-five green in two, while McIlroy drove into the rough, hit his second across the fairway into the rough, then hit his approach into the greenside rough. And then he holed it for a birdie, as Woods chunked his chip and trudged off for his par. Let's just call it a Rory moment.
There were quite a few of them in a five-under round which tied him at the top of the leader board with the big Swede Robert Karlsson. Followed by a sizeable early-mooring crowd, which included Sir Ian Botham and Michael Vaughan before they had to scoot off to the nearby Pakistan-England Test, McIlroy began quickly with three birdies in four holes. Yet from there the big club began to misbehave.
Good job the shorter clubs decided to be obedient, as did Lady Luck. The latter was best summed up by his second on the par-five 18th (his ninth), which in McIlroy's words "disappeared into the hospitality tent and is probably still in someone's lunch". McIlroy duly got up and down from the drop-zone for a birdie and so it continued.
"It's funny, I said to Tiger out there, 'I've got to hit a few more fairways' and he said, 'It doesn't look like you need to from where I'm standing'," said McIlroy, whose friendship with Woods is clearly growing. "It's something I felt I improved a lot last year. Even if I don't play well, I can still get it around. It makes a huge difference."
McIlroy then headed to the range to work on his driving, although he confessed some mental work could be just as beneficial. Golfers very rarely admit they were dragged into a long-driving contest, but with the sweet-hitting Woods knocking it past him, McIlroy could not resist. "It did cross my mind a couple of times," he said. "When you see a guy hitting it out there, you want to try to keep up with him."
Poor old Luke Donald was often 30 yards behind his playing partners, but, as he does, the world No 1 still managed to cajole it in for a 71. Looking at the physique of the trio, the differential in length seemed directly attributable to the amount of muscle. Donald is actually "sneaky buff", as they say Stateside, but there's nothing sneaky about the bulk on the frames of Woods and McIlroy.
Tiger has long been a gym addict, but in the last 12 months Rory has been bitten by the bug as well and the effect is so plain to see – on both his scales and his scorecards. "I had a weak left side," said the 22-year-old. "I could create a lot of power and speed on the way down, but I couldn't hold it through impact. So I've got a lot stronger and it's definitely helped my game."
Woods could only nod. Strength of mind, strength of body, strength of purpose. As well as a few miracles, of course.