Tiger Woods believes he’s far from finished as a major force. But he no longer intimidates the competition, especially the young guns like Rory McIlroy.
The Holwyood starlet, 21, watched Woods winning amateur championships on TV when he was a small boy. But while he was amazed by Tiger’s winning feats in 2000 and 2001, he’s seen little of the old Woods magic since he turned professional in September 2007.
Woods, who turned 35 at the end of last year, has won just one major (the 2008 US Open) since McIlroy joined the paid ranks. They have co-incided in nine majors since McIlroy made his debut in the 2007 Open as an amateur and while Woods has finished ahead of his young rival on six occasions, the tide is turning.
McIlroy has performed better than Woods in the last two Opens as well as the 2010 US PGA where he finished third to Woods’ 28th place finish.
It’s no wonder that the young Ulsterman looks on Woods as just another “normal” golfer these days and “one of the guys.”
Asked if he saw Woods dominating the way he did in 2000 or 2001, McIlroy said: “I think if he swung it the way he swung it in 2000, yeah, definitely. But with the injury that he’s had, it’s very difficult for him to do that now. He’s working hard with Sean Foley, and you know if that clicks into place, I’m sure he’ll start winning a lot of tournaments again. But I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate the way he did back in the early 2000s.”
McIlroy added: “He’s still Tiger Woods. He still goes out and he has not played badly, but he’s just played like a normal professional golfer instead of like the way he usually does. You see that he’s working hard with Sean Foley and he’s putting the hours in, so I’m sure that in the near future, maybe six months, a year down the line, he’ll start to play very, very well again.”
That said, McIlroy is obviously not intimidated by the Woods aura, explaining: “I’ve gotten to know Tiger the last couple of years and I never felt I never saw him dominate. I never played in tournaments that he played in when he was dominating, so I never really felt that aura. I sort of when I speak to him, sort of play with him, he’s just Tiger. It’s not really I don’t really feel like there’s any sort of special presence about him. He’s just one of the guys.”
Woods was world No 1 for 281 consecutive weeks and just one week shy of a total stay at the top of 12 years when Lee Westwood overtook him at the top of the world rankings on 1 November last year.
He hasn’t won for 15 months but he sounded far from desperate during his media conference ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic.
He said: “I still feel I can win golf tournaments. I’m not that old. I figure I’ve got some years ahead of me. I don’t always win - I’ve certainly lost a lot more tournaments than I’ve won. But it’s the goal every week you tee up and that doesn’t change.”
Woods is paired with Westwood and world No 2 Martin Kaymer for the first two rounds in Dubai and he insists that the “complete overhaul” he is making to his swing with the Canadian coach Sean Foley is starting to bear fruit.
He said: “Obviously I still have to pay attention to the short game and my techniques there, all the different shots, as well as the putting stroke. It’s progressing. I’m putting pieces together and working on the same things.”
Woods added: “Well, obviously my swing, that made a complete change in philosophy and movements. So that takes an awful lot of time. And obviously still got to pay attention to the short game and my techniques there, all of the different shots, as well as the putting stroke.
“You try and find practise time when you can, but we have had to do a lot more work on the golf swing. And I’ve made a complete overhaul on my swing, so that’s taken quite a lot of time.”
A disappointing tied 44th on his 2011 debut in San Diego two weeks ago, he added: “Sean and I, we are sticking with the game plan and just trying to get better each and every week. Good things happened in the last event I played in and it’s nice to have some things that showed up that I had not had in practice.
“So we were able to identify that, work on it and I feel a lot more comfortable coming into this week.”
As for his chances of regaining his world No 1 ranking (something that is mathematically beyond him this week), Woods knows what he has to do.
“Well, as players, I just look at it, I’ve been out here for enough, long enough now, that it’s about sustainability,” he said. “The guys that have been No 1 when I’ve been out here, how they got there, they won golf tournaments. That’s how David got there; that’s how Vijay got there; that’s how Lee got there.
“And you have to do it for long periods of times. I think the only person who has been as consistent over the years was Norman. He won all over the world, and he won a lot. That’s what you have to do. That’s what’s fun about playing all over the world, trying to win events.”
Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane, Michael Hoey and Paul McGinley have made slow starts to the season but much will he expected of McIlroy, Gareth Maybin and a resurgent Darren Clarke.
Veteran Clarke, a newcomer to Twitter this week with the moniker theprincedc (he was dubbed the Prince of Darkness by his long siffering physio John Newton), appears to be at another crossroads in his career.
Back in the world’s top 100 following his eighth place finish in Bahrain and share of 12th in Qatar last week, he looks capable of winning again.
Much will depend on his confidence with the putter following hard work with coach Phil Kenyon and a helpful lesson from Ryder Cup skipper Jose Maria Olazábal in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago.