From Brian Keogh in Dubai
Tiger Woods has taken note of Rory McIlroy’s spectacular appearance on golf’s major stage, revealing that he was impressed by the 18-year-old’s performance in last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie, where he was outscored by the teenager in the first round.
But while virtually every kid swinging a golf club these days wishes he was Tiger Woods, 36-year-old Thomas Bjorn wishes he was McIlroy, who still has time on his side as he tries to match the game’s leading light and maybe even beat him some day.
As Woods tees it up in the Dubai Desert Classic bidding for a staggering seventh strokeplay victory from his last eight starts, the cream of European golf is still trying to work how to get the better of the 13-time major winner.
Bjorn, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke have all beaten Woods at some stage in their careers but while time is running out for them, the Dane believes that McIlroy is fortunate to be taking his first steps in the game in the Woods era.
"I don't think we have seen the best of him,” said Bjorn, who beat Woods down the stretch to win the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic. ”That in itself is a pretty scary thought. He is the greatest sporting icon in the world and it is great for the game.
"I would love to be Rory McIlroy right now, growing up with Tiger as the best in the world and have him to measure yourself against him. People ask why we don't stand up to this guy. But we are simply not as good as he is."
Woods gave McIlroy honourable mention in his pre-tournament press conference yesterday, explaining: "I met Rory yesterday in the charity challenge but we didn't spend a whole lot of time together as we were competing in different groups.
"He did impress me with what he did at the British Open last year and you can see he's got the talent the way he played at Carnoustie and how he held up.
"I haven't followed his career since he's turned pro but he's now out here and he's now a professional. And you know, it's just a matter of improving and maturing as a player."
Woods won the Target World Challenge by seven shots after a ten week lay-off just before Christmas and then came last week and won the Buick Invitational by eight strokes after spending another five weeks at home.
Asked what he might win by after having no break at all, Woods said: “Hopefully I can play well enough to win.”
Modesty is one of his trademarks and he confessed that he is still amazed that at 32, he already has 13 major championships on the sideboard and feels capable of winning the Grand Slam this year if he has a little luck on his side.
“It’s about playing well at the right times,” he said. “It’s about getting lucky, actually. You have to have everything go your way. You can play well and still not have it happen.
“The only thing I can control is my own lay and hopefully I can have it peak at the right time, four times this year and hopefully it will be good enough.”
The field might need a little more than luck to stop Woods this week, despite the fact that he has won “just” one of his four previous appearances in the Desert Classic.
"It all depends on Tiger. It could be all over by Friday like it was at the Buick,” said Bjorn. “You can't allow him to be five or six clear by the weekend because you won't catch up.”
Sporting blisters on his hands after another marathon practice session , Clarke said he couldn’t remember what he did to beat Woods in the 2000 WGC-World Matchplay, “it was so long ago”.
Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie Swede Niclas Fasth will join Woods for the first two rounds with the veteran determined to use the experience to learn what he needs to do to improve.
“I want to learn from the experience over the next two days,” said Montgomerie. “I want to find out where I am and where I have to get to and if he beats me over the first two days, I want to find out why and how he's got round and why he saved shots at particular situations and I didn't.”
Asked how he could beat Woods, Monty replied in classic style: “I am not going to beat Tiger Woods by hitting the ball any further than him. I am not going to beat him by hitting my irons any better than him. I am not going to beat him chipping the ball any better than he does. And I am not going to beat him by holing any more putts than he does because he is good at that. I am not going to beat him physically and in fact, I will beat no one out here physically. I am not going to be him mentally. The only way I am going to beat Tiger Woods is playing like Colin Montgomerie."