World waits for Rory McIlroy v Rickie Fowler

 

With apologies to Mr Shakespeare, all the world's a stage and we are merely at The Players – not the fifth major, as the PGA Tour would have the world believe, but nevertheless an elite championship in Florida with a $9.5m (£6m) purse and a first prize of $1.71m.

When the 144 players tee off tomorrow at Sawgrass, the course with that panic-inducing island green on the 17th, all eyes will once again fall on Tiger Woods as yet another chapter of his never-ending circus is uncovered. Is he back (see victory at Bay Hill in March)? Or is he yesterday's man (see failure at the Masters and a missed cut last week in South Carolina)?

Woods is not too many more poor performances and temper tantrums away from becoming a sideshow rather than the main act. As the field assembled here, there was no doubt the buzz was not about the 36-year-old former world No 1 but the 23-year-old current world No 1 and his latest flamboyant rival.

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy has been the flag carrier for a new generation of post-Tiger stars. He now has company. Last weekend, 23-year-old Rickie Fowler finally delivered on his potential and hype to beat McIlroy in a play-off at Wells Fargo Championship and emerge as the long-awaited poster boy for American golf.

You can hardly miss Fowler. He's the one dressed like an escaped convict attempting to make orange the new Sunday red (copyrighted by Tiger at the Masters in 1997). The world seemingly waited an age to fail to find a genuine competitor for Tiger. Now the hope is that McIlroy and Fowler will forge a new rivalry. Tiger's continuing to tie himself in mental and physical knots simply emphasises the fact that, for McIlroy and Fowler, the future is now.

"With Tiger not playing his best it has spread the spotlight and helps Rickie and I to stand out a little bit more," McIlroy said. "It's been a good thing for us." It looks like it will be an amicable rivalry, too, as they struck up a friendship in their amateur days. "I developed a really good relationship with him at the Walker Cup in 2007," McIlroy said. "I felt like he was the best player on that [United States] team and also the nicest guy."

As for Woods, Nick Faldo said yesterday that he believes he has lost his self-belief. Not usually shy in straight-batting such criticism with silence and a death stare, Woods for once went on the verbal offensive when informed of Faldo's wisdom. But this time Woods shared his often rumoured but rarely displayed sense of humour. "I always find it interesting since they're not in my head. They must have some kind of superpower I don't know about," he said to much laughter.

But Woods being Woods, the death stare wasn't too far away. "I've always had a coach," was his twice-repeated reply when asked if he ever had thoughts of dispensing with swing coaches and flying solo to see if he, on his own, can rediscover his golfing mojo. Is there any joy in the toil of working hard to find a way forward? "A joy? No, I don't enjoy missing cuts," was his succinct response.

This time last year Woods limped out of the championship after shooting a front nine six-over par 42 in the first round. He's physically fit this year but he's still limping mentally and technically as he fights to regain his confidence and strives to find consistency in the changes that his swing guru, Sean Foley, is honing. Woods arrived here on the back of a missed cut last week in South Carolina. It was only the eighth time he has failed to make the weekend's play since he joined the professional ranks in 1996. It is a statistic that illustrates just how good he is – or was.

Inevitably, he was asked about the new names at the top of the world rankings."Do I think it's good for the game? I liked it better when I was up there," Woods said. "That's just me. Sorry."

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