Rory McIlroy believes a “happy” Tiger Woods can be a force again and the Ulsterman’s team does not rule out an albeit unlikely Irish Open appearance by the 14-time major winner at Portstewart next year.
The world No 2 joined Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry and a host of stars at the Excellence in Sport Awards in aid of the Irish Youth Foundation in Dublin on Monday.
And as he picked up his Sportsperson of the Year award, McIlroy he confessed the he was impressed by Woods’ return to action after a 15 month layoff in last week’s Hero World Challenge,
And while he knows that Woods, 41 on December 30, faces more competition that ever, McIlroy believes the American’s game is still good enough to contend for majors and win them.
More importantly, he felt he saw a happier looking Woods for he first time in several years and that bodes well the chances of seeing the American play more golf, possibly in Ireland.
McIlroy said: “I threw it on [the TV] Thursday night we were in London, Friday night we were here so didn’t get to see much of it, watched a good bit of it Saturday, he didn’t finish great again, and saw a bit Sunday, It was great,The excitement levels are huge any time he tees it up, whenever Tiger plays.
"I think he exceeded everyone’s expectations, not sure if he exceeded his own, but he definitely made some great swings
“He looked comfortable, he looked happy which I thought was the most interesting thing. He looked happy to be out there, which we probably haven’t seen in a while.
“Anytime we saw him on a golf course in the last couple of years he had the furrowed brow and he has been so concentrated.
“But he looked happy so obviously that tells you he has been away and he has come back out happy and he is in a better place.”
With the Rory Foundation helping the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open become a $7m event next year, McIlroy hopes to attract some big name with world No 1 Jason Day, US Open champion Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and US Ryder Cup hero Patrick Reed on the hit list.
McIlroy added: “I think the date two weeks before The Open entices guys to come over early and acclimatise to the conditions and get to play links golf if it is on a links golf course.
“So I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of the Americans at the Ryder Cup come over and play this year.”
Woods was ruled out by injury last year but he is not ruled out for 2017 just yet.
A spokesman for McIlroy confirmed that the Holywood start “texted” Woods to invite him to The K Club last year and doesn’t rule out a similar more ahead of Portstewart.
“We’d love Tiger to play but we haven’t reached out in any capacity,” said Sean O'Flaherty. “A good number of players will be asked by the Rory Foundation — Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day will all be asked. If not next year, hopefully they will l commit to one of the years.
“With Tiger, the request would have to come from Rory and he did text Tiger last year. Honestly, less effort will have to be made next year to get a good field because of the date but it will be Rory’s call.”
Harrington believes Woods will get a big psychological boost from a performance in the Hero World Challenge.
Asked if Woods could win more majors, Harrington said: “I think he could. Physically, his driving was good enough. His short game looked good in places and his putting was good. He’s excited. So I think he could definitely do it.
“Before last week, I wasn’t sure if he’d ever win a major again. I think he will now.
“I didn’t think he’d ever play again or had no idea. It’s exceptionally good for golf that he’s back. It’s incredibly big for the game.
"I think it should be a big lift to him. There were a lot of good signs. There wouldn’t be very many players in the world who wouldn’t take where he is at the moment going into next year.
"The great thing for Tiger is that he knows, if he can get himself into contention, he has got the ability to win and scare other players and do everything that is necessary.
"He has to have a game good enough to do that and he showed last week that that game was good enough. If it was his week, he can win
"Clearly times have changed and he is 40 years of age and not the guy he was when he was 30 years of age.
"I don’t necessarily see him winning with his B game but he can certainly win with the game that showed up last week."
McIlroy was also hugely impressed with the snatches of coverage he saw on TV over the four days.
He said: “I thought he is definitely swinging it much better now that he was when he went away. His rhythm was great, looks really smooth, he looks really comfortable, looks like he is not going after it as hard. It was good.”
Asked if Woods had the game to win another major, McIlroy added “Why not? You don’t hit 24 birdies in a week and not show good signs.
“I know it is different and it is not the same as other tournaments but there is definitely good reason for everyone to be excited.”
Like Harrington, McIlroy sees Woods’ game as good enough to win multiple times per year —"like he did in '13" — and contend for majors.
But whether he can dominate as he did a decade ago, he’s not so sure.
“Winning majors isn’t really about how he swings it, it is about feeling the pressure under the gun and if he is able to do that then he has a chance.
“I feel in the past when he was winning majors there was times when obviously he made it look very easy but the level of competition he has n ow and the depth and the longevity are different.
“Dustin is just in his 30s, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and myself, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, we are early to mid to late 20s.
“There is a lot of young guys there too which is great, if is he going to keep winning majors, this is who he has to beat.”
Whatever about the power game, McIlroy believes Woods can win in many ways, pointing to Jim Furyk and Harrington as recent winners at 45 or more.
Pleased to see Woods back, he added: “It is great. I read today that apart from the first round of the Open Championship this year it was the most viewed golf round of the year.
“That tells you exactly what you need to know about the excitement level that he brings.
"it is great for the game and it is great for us. It is great for exposure.”
Shane Lowry was thrilled to see Wood return too, adding: "Oh wow. How good was he swinging it?
Harrington added: "His irons were great."
"He drove it well," Lowry said. "He is not jumping at it. Obviously he hit a few bad ones, but still."
Harrington dismissed the bad drives
"Those bad ones wouldn’t cost him on another style of golf course."
Lowry added: "That putt he holed for a par (in the 65 on Friday) and gave the little punch to stay six or seven under, that was huge. That was him from a few years ago, wasn’t it."
Harrington, who is only player to play regularly with Woods in his prime and outscore him in their head to head clashes when they were drawn together, could not resist.
"Well he probably wouldn’t have punched the air a few years ago," he said. "He’d just have holed the putt."