Rory's shot for the top in Abu Dhabi… but Tiger's still standing in his way
The last time Tiger Woods felt this good going into a new season, the first whisperings were emerging from Ireland about a 15-year-old so talented he might be a Celtic Tiger one day.
Now a rejuvenated Woods and a fully-grown Rory McIlroy will play together for the first two rounds of the Abu Dhabi Championship. It is the first time they have been drawn together in a regular event on the European or the US Tours and it appears to be their destiny for it to be the first of many.
As if that was not mouth-watering enough at the start of a new season, the third member of the group just happens to be the world No 1 Luke Donald.
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With a 14-year age gap between Woods and McIlroy, there will surely come a day when 36-year-old Tiger will have to stand aside for Rory to become the game’s main attraction. But Woods looks and sounds like a man hell-bent on ensuring it will not happen soon.
As ever, his press conference here was a masterpiece in the art of saying very little but even Woods could not disguise his enthusiasm at the prospect of playing a full season for the first time since 2009.
As for a time when he could work out every day, as is his wont, and hit practice balls for hours on end, as he can now, you have to go back much further.
‘When was I last this healthy Eight, 10, 12 years ago It would have to be something like that,’ he said. ‘Do I sense this will be a great year Who knows. Unless you have a crystal ball and want to tell me about it. But I can tell you this — I am looking forward to it.’
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Part of that anticipation comes from the way he finished last year, when we saw glimpses once more of the player within.
A fortnight’s consummate ball-striking in Australia was followed by a win in his own limited field event, the Chevron World Challenge in Los Angeles, his first victory since that fateful Thanksgiving Day in 2009 when his world fell apart.
A further motivation must be the challenge presented by the two men who will be by his side tomorrow and Friday. Woods has seen nothing to change his mind about McIlroy being a No 1 in the making but he has revised his opinion of Donald.
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Once rather disparaging about the Englishman, referring to him as a ‘plodder’, he was full of praise, commenting: ‘You have to say it was a heck of an achievement for Luke to finish No 1 on both tours last year, the travel that takes and the consistency you have to have. He deserved it.’
Woods is no stranger to playing in the Middle East but it is symbolic of who holds the purse strings in this part of the world that he is playing here for the first time rather than in Dubai.
As a result, he is missing out on one of his favourite US Tour venues, Torrey Pines, where he has won six times, including an unforgettable US Open triumph in 2008. Who knows how much he is being paid as compensation. $1.5million Double that Enough, anyway.
This time last year the star attraction Phil Mickelson was packing his wife Amy and the kids into their private plane to visit Jordan for the day.
Woods is unlikely to get much further than his suite at the Emirates Palace when it comes to visiting the area’s attractions, and he certainly will not make it to the Test match being staged down the road.
'I’ve been following the cricket a little bit, it’s like a batsman’s paradise out here isn’t it’ he said, thereby revealing that when he was following it he was watching Pakistan bat rather than England.
Woods’s presence here is expected to double the usual weekly attendance of 40,000. There will be one sporting event in these parts, then, with a crowd.