Rory and Tiger — ready to rumble
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods during an exhibition in China 15 months ago. The major tally was 14-2 then too. Picture Photo

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods during an exhibition in China 15 months ago. The major tally was 14-2 then too. Picture Photo

They've been compared ever since the Holywood kid first teed it up in the 2006 Dubai Desert Classic as a 16-year old amateur. Sports editors demanded the tale-of-the tape comparing the child prodigies and given all that Tiger Woods has gone on to achieve, it's a testament to Rory McIlroy's mental strength - 2013 apart - that he's been able to sail his own course.

Having played 164 official events as a professional, the pride of Co Down has excelled, outstripping everyone but Woods and Jack Nicklaus with his feats - two major victories from 20 starts among his 10 official worldwide wins is a phenomenal record.

Sure, Woods won eight of his first 20 majors as a professional - twice as many as the Golden Bear managed in the same period at the start of his career -  but McIlroy does not appear burdened by comparisons.

When he partners Woods and Scotland's Stephen Gallacher in the first two rounds of the 25th anniversary Omega Dubai Desert Classic this week, the 24-year old will undoubtedly be keen to put one over on his boyhood idol. Ditto Woods regarding the young upstart.

Where both are going from here is the fascinating question. Just as Woods kicked into top gear once he beat Sergio Garcia down the stretch to capture his second major title at Medinah in 1999, McIlroy's may well be on the brink of a similarly hot streak having overcome the disaster that followed in the wake of his second major win.

As Mark O'Meara said when Woods won that US PGA in '99: "He has taken greater control of his career, and he's to the point where he feels extremely comfortable in all aspects of his life. I'm not sure that was always the case."

Leaving aside for a moment the pending legal battle with Horizon Sports Management, McIlroy appears happier than ever both on and off the course.

Are we back where we left off in August 2012, when he romped to his second eight-shot win in a major in the US PGA at Kiawah Island? Only time will tell.

As he said just hours after that hugely impressive victory: "Of course, I love the game. The reason I still play is not because of money or being famous, it’s because I picked up a club when I was two years old and fell in love with it. It’s the same reason I go out and play nowadays. I just love the game and love playing. Playing golf has brought me this far and I want to make the most of it. It has given me some great things in life and hopefully it will continue to do so."

Just as winning in Dubai in 2009 was a huge milestone for McIlroy, it's clear his next goal is to complete the career Grand Slam, which will mean testing himself against the likes of Woods down the stretch when it really counts. He said as much this week, after all.

Like many others who have watched him grow up in the harsh glare of the media spotlight, it's fair to say he is essentially the same person but a far better golfer than before. Yes, he's inevitably retreated into a bubble inhabited by his lifelong friends and his business confidants, and kept most of the hangers on at bay. Beneath the banal corporate sheen that's been applied by Nike, he remains largely likeable and arguably more impressive than the kid who won at Congressional or Kiawah.

"I am not better than anyone else because I play great golf," he said at Kiawah Island. "If someone comes up to me and wants a picture, wants an autograph, of course I am going to say yes and go out of my way to help them and give them my time because I know how I felt when I was a kid."

Those closest to him insist we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. He can clearly see the path ahead, we're told. He's finally ready to set off purposefully on his journey.

When McIlroy and Woods turn up for the 35th anniversary Dubai Desert Classic, it will be interesting to see how the major count stands. Right now it's 14-2 to the man many believe is the greatest to ever swing a club. Winless in the majors since 2008, the 2014 season is being billed as Year Zero for Woods. 

Whatever their major tallies at the end of 2014 or even in 2024, only a pessimist would bet against seeing some movement in the scoreboard.