Rory McIlroy will get a chance to see how his game stacks up against a fully fit Tiger Woods when he tees it up alongside the American and world No 1 Luke Donald in the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
The US Open champion believes that Woods is still “the man” in terms of his stature in the game but he stopped short of saying that the 14-time major winner could regain the stratospheric level of performance he achieved at the turn of the century.
McIlroy does not believe that markers are being laid down this week. What is clear is that beating Woods down the stretch to claim victory would be a huge boost to his confidence and something positive to draw on if they happened to meet with a major on the line at a future date.
“It’s definitely not a quiet way to start the year,” McIlroy said. “It’s great, you get straight at it right away. You’re playing with two of the best golfers in the world in the first two days, and you’re up against one of the strongest fields probably that will be assembled this year. You want to try and get off to a good start, so you want to try and play well. But obviously the Majors have that little bit extra and that something different.
“But if it was to happen, if I was to come up against Tiger at any point in a tournament this year, it would be a great thing for me, I think a huge challenge to see how my game would hold up against that sort of pressure, and something I could definitely learn from.”
McIlroy had no problems recognising that despite his fall from grace and loss of form over the past two years, Woods is still the biggest name in golf.
“Growing up and watching Tiger for the last 15 years, he was the face of golf for a long, long time and he probably still is the face of golf,” the Ulsterman said. “He set the benchmark for a lot of guys and no-one may play the way he did in 2000-2001. He is still the main attraction in golf and I don’t think anyone would argue with that.”
Asked if Woods could recapture the form he showed more than a decade ago, McIlroy hesitated for a moment and said diplomatically: “I see him definitely contending again. I played nine holes with him yesterday and his game was in good shape.
“He seems determined. He seems like he is back to full fitness and that can only be good for golf. Hopefully I can get in the mix with him a few Sundays and go down the stretch with him.”
In 2006, when he was playing in the Dubai Desert Classic as an amateur, McIlroy borrowed a camera from a photographer and ducked under the ropes to get a closer look at Woods, his boyhood idol.
Now it’s Woods who’s looking up to McIlroy from 25th in the world rankings yet they appear to enjoy a friendly rivarly and even played nine holes in practice together on Tuesday, when they spoke about everything from golf and American football to tennis.
“Definitely the first time I played with Tiger I was a little nervous,” McIlroy said. “I remember playing a skins game at the Memorial Tournament with him in 2010; wasn’t even two years ago. The first time you play with him, you’ve watched this guy on TV your whole life winning Majors and doing things that no one thought was possible. So you’re going to be a little awestruck.
“I suppose once I got to spend a little time with him and maybe have lunch with him a few times and everything, you can sort of break the barrier down a little bit, and it’s fine from there.
“I played with him the first round at the Chevron in 2010 and felt less in awe, and then obviously getting to know him a little bit better since, I feel quite comfortable being around him.
“We talked about a lot of things yesterday. We talked about putting, we talked about driving, we talked about feelings, we talked about what you’re trying to do on the golf swing. So that is quite interesting to me, because obviously Tiger has went through a couple of swing changes in his career and talking about what he was trying to do maybe in 2000 and what he was trying to do in 2004 and what he’s trying to do now.
“It’s pretty interesting to me because I feel like I have quite a lot of knowledge on the golf swing and it’s something I’m quite interested in. So to sort of share ideas with him was pretty nice.”
While Woods had to change his swing to overcome physical limitations follow a series of knee and leg injuries, McIlroy doesn’t believe he will be forced to do the same.
“Hopefully I won’t have to change it. I know Tiger had to change it because of his body and the way he hurt his knee and everything, so he could not quite swing the way he did in the past.
“Obviously he made a few adjustments. And hopefully, touch wood, that won’t happen to me; that my body breaks down and that I have to change some part of my golf swing.
“You’re always making tiny little adjustments here and there and trying to get it as good as you can. But I don’t see myself making any major overhaul of my golf swing.”