Teenage tornado Rory McIlroy is set to take on Tiger Woods again - less six months before he joins the world No 1 in the pro ranks.
The Holywood star, 17, looks certain to make the move on September 10 next year, the day after the Walker Cup at Royal County Down.
And he’s determined to keep his game in tip-top shape over the winter with a series of high profile professional tournament appearances on sponsor’s invites, including another meeting with Woods in the Dubai Desert Classic in March.
The reigning European Amateur champion is also optimistic that he can clinch a spot in next month’s Hong Kong Open where Colin Montgomerie, Retief Goosen and Michael Campbell are certain starters.
But he revealed that he also has high hopes of playing three events in a row in the Middle East early in the New Year - including another chance to tame the Tiger.
Spots in the Qatar Masters and Dubai Desert Classic are already well in hand but McIlroy would love to kick off a three-in-a-row spell in the IMG run Abu Dhabi Championship before joining Woods and mentor Darren Clarke at the Emirates Club in March.
He said: “I love it out there and if I don’t get into Hong Kong I’ll probably head over to Dubai next month anyway, just to do some practice.
“My family has friends there and I can go an stay with them any time I like and practice at Jumeirah or even Peter Cowan’s academy at the Emirates.
“It’s important to stay sharp over the winter and going to Australia last year and then to Dubai earlier this year really helped me.
“I only missed the cut by a shot, with three double bogeys in two rounds, and it would be great to get the chance to play in the same event as Tiger again.”
McIlroy’s last amateur tournament of the season comes in two weeks’ time when he teams up with Lurgan's Gareth Shaw and Co. Louth's Simon Ward in the the Eisenhower Trophy in South Africa from 26-29 October.
But he is already looking forward to a string of high profile professional events in the new year - including another chance to take on Woods in the Open at Carnoustie.
The youngster earned his spot in his first Major thanks to his stunning victory in this year’s European Amateur Championship in Italy.
But before that win he was already one of the most sought-after young talents in the game with Woods’ management company IMG vying with Chubby Chandler’s ISM for his signature.
McIlroy looks odds on to join Clarke in Chandler’s stable after developing a close personal relationship with the Ryder Cup hero over the past few years.
And his long-time coach Michael Bannon is convinced that he has the talent and the flair to go on to join Clarke and become a true superstars in the game.
McIlroy's coach since he was little more than a toddler, Bannon said: “Rory is one in a million, there is no doubt about that. He is one of those guys who has the whole package.
“He has the mentality, the drive and the fight. He has got the swing and the attitude on the golf course. He is easy going and doesn’t let things bother him.”
With a handicap of plus 5.1, McIlroy has now matched Spanish wonderkid Sergio Garcia, who was plus five when he made the move to the pro ranks in 1999.
He has already had an incredible amateur career, successfully defending the West of Ireland and Irish Close titles this season before taking the European Amateur crown.
McIlroy said: “It’s been a great year and hopefully we can do well in the Eisenhower in South Africa. But I have to admit that I’m looking forward to next year already and hopefully the Walker Cup.
“I’m trying to keep my game in shape and while it was nice to have three weeks off recently I have started hitting a lot of balls again.”
New Titleist clubs are top of the agenda for the growing Ulster kid after Bannon noticed that his pupil seemed to be stooping over the ball recently.
McIlroy said: “I might have gotten a bit taller and my arms a bit longer. My hands are a bit low and the heel of the club was off the ground so I need to get them more upright.”
Bannon said: “He’s not the tallest of guys but he is getting broader and he is like the rubber man he is so flexible. He is hitting so many golf balls he gets stronger all the time. He just flexible from doing a bit of yoga but bhe doesn’t lift weights or anything.
“He’s going to have to step up the practice now with such a big year coming up. He is hitting the ball longer and stronger than ever now, especially with his woods and the driver.
“His clubs are one degree flat, which is no good for him at the minute. He has to bend way over to get at them so when he gets the clubs sorted he will improve his posture and he’ll be able to stand up a bit more to the ball.”
Bannon knows McIlroy’s game better than anyone, having coached the wonderkid since his Dad Gerry first brought him to Holywood, where Bannon was a professional for 17 years before moving to Bangor.
He said: “I don’t know that he has many weaknesses in his game. And he’s a shaper of the ball as well, the way Christy O’Connor was.
“He can move it about all shapes and heights. He just needs experience now. You have to keep the pressure on at that level so it is important for him to play over the winter.
“Rory used to live on the same street as me. I lived 100 yards from him for years and I’ve been friends with his dad since we were teenagers.
“Rory has never been without a golf club in his hand. It is like a knife and fork to him and he grew up in Holywood Golf Club. He was the youngest member ever - seven or eight when he was made a member. They made an exception for him because he was so good.
“He’s a class act and mentally he is so strong, the way he is able to come through and win matches on the tie holes. If he keeps going the way he is going, who knows how far he can go.”
McDowell heads for India
Graeme McDowell will be heading into controversial waters later this month when he plays in at the Indian Open.
Stablemates Andrew Coltart and Simon Dyson have also entered the $400,000 event at the Delhi Golf Club from 19-22 October.
But they will arrive in India to find the game there in disarray after several leading Indian pros resigned from the sport's national governing body this week.
Darren Clarke, meanwhile, looks certain to play in the Australian PGA Championship at Coolum from 7-10 December - the week before he plays in Tiger Woods’ Target World Challenge in California.
Des Smyth plans to pump iron this winter and boost his Champions Tour career.
The Ryder Cup vice captain says he learnt a lot watching Europe's top stars in action at the Ryder Cup and fitness is a top priority.
With just four events left to play in the US this term, Smyth wants to be raring to go in 2007.
He said: "I've always kept myself pretty fit but I'll be going to the gym a little over the winter to get ready for next year.
"It's a very competitive environment and I want to get a few more wins under my belt.">
Richie Coughlan will rub shoulders with some big names in the PGA Tour Qualifying School next month.
Coughlan will try his luck at stage one alongside 2000 Irish Open winner Patrick Sjoland and Walker Cup star Bryce Molder - the player who denied Graeme McDowell the College Player of the Year Award in 2001.
Keith Nolan, Gareth Maybin, Sean Quinlivan and Chris Devlin are also set to battle through Stage One over the next few weeks.
Nolan and Maybin failed at the first stage of the European Tour School recently but will get a chance to advance in the US version in South Carolina and Texas from October 24-27.
Kerryman Quinlivan and Ulster born Devlin will be in action in Florida from November 2 - 5.
Meanwhile, European Tour stars Kenny Ferrie and Peter Hedblom are set to go in stage two in mid-November.
Close for Cork
Rory McIlroy could miss out on a hat-trick of Irish Close Championships as he bids to secure his Walker Cup place.
The ‘Close’ takes place at Cork Golf Club from June 9- 13 but McIlroy is keen to play in the clashing St Andrews Links Trophy at the Home of Golf.
If McIlroy does head to Cork and wins, he will match the legendary Joe Carr who clinched his ‘Close’ hat-trick at Rosses Point in 1965.