By Brian Keogh
Rory McIlroy will take another giant step towards global fame and fortune when he tees it up in The Crowns tournament on the Japan Golf Tour in May.
The 18-year-old Holywood starlet is one of the hottest tickets in world golf following his exploits in last year's Open at Carnoustie and subsequent third place finish in the Alfred Dunhill Links in just his second professional event.
And his amazing rise in the professional ranks has not gone unnoticed in the Land of the Rising Sun, where he has accepted a sponsor's invitation to play in the prestigious Crowns at Nagoya from May 1-4.
Following his brilliant share of 11th place alongside the likes of Open champion Padraig Harrington in the Abu Dhabi Championship on Sunday, McIlroy is riding a wave of confidence he hopes will result in a maiden European Tour victory this season.
He will have two more opportunities to achieve that goal over the next fortnight when he follows his debut in the Commericalbank Qatar Masters in Doha this week with his third appearance in the Dubai Desert Classic alongside Tiger Woods.
With a prize fund of €780,000, McIlroy's decision to accept an invitation to play in The Crowns is an indication of his inexorable rise in golf's pecking order.
After leaping 19 places in the Official World Golf Ranking to 201st yesterday, McIlroy said: "I've never been to Japan and I'm really looking forward to it.
"I'm going to be in that part of the world because I am playing the BMW Asian Open in Shanghai the week before and I'll then have a week off ahead of the Irish Open at Adare Manor. So that it will be nice."
The Crowns was first played in 1960 and the list of former champions is a who's who of major winners and golfing superstars.
McIlroy's stablemate and mentor Darren Clarke, now trailing 16 spots behind him at 217th in the world, lifted the title in 2001.
But with trophy also bears the names of twice Open champion Greg Norman (1989), five-time major winner Seve Ballesteros (1991), former US PGA winner Davis Love (1998) and reigning European No 1 Justin Rose (2002).
McIlroy will need a special release from the European Tour before he can travel to Japan for the first time and bid for the winner's cheque for around €160,000.
Set to turn 19 the Monday after his Japanese debut, McIlroy is still committed to the European Tour this season and his bid for that maiden professional victory.
He added: "Playing in Japan is going to be a great opportunity for me and somewhere where I have never been before but it's the European Tour all the way for me this year."
Set to take a long break in February, when he plans to take a cruise with his girlfriend Holly and her family, his goals for the 2008 season to win on tour, qualify for the US Open and earn enough world ranking points to get into the world's top 100 before August's US PGA at Oakland Hills.
It's not the first time that McIlroy has attracted the attention of Japanese promoters.
In November last year, he was invited to compete in the Casio World Open at Kochi but opted to play the co-sanctioned Australian Masters in Melbourne instead, finishing tied 15th.
Up to 63rd in the Order of Merit and now ranked 22nd in the Ryder Cup European Points List, McIlroy is one of the major attractions in Qatar this week after being dubbed "the most talked about youngster in world golf" in the pre-tournament promotion campaign.
The €1.75 million Doha event offers a first prize of €285,071 with defending champion Retief Goosen and former winners Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson headlining the field.
Order of Merit leader Lee Westwood heads a list of Ryder Cup stars that includes Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, David Howell, Paul Casey, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Scot Colin Montgomeriem, Ireland’s Paul McGinley as well as American Scott Verplank.
The European contingent will all be looking to land their first trophy of the year and rack up the points needed to be an automatic choice in Nick Faldo’s European team.
Dubliner McGinley, who jumped 14 spots to 186th in the World Rankings following his top 10 finish in Abu Dhabi, is joined by Graeme McDowell, Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane and Gary Murphy.
Darren Clarke has decided to take the week off to spend time with his two young sons before returning to action with a three-tournament run in Dubai, India and Indonesia.