TIGER Woods has finally joined in with the Rory-mania. The 14-times major champion had previously resisted adding to all the hype which has accompanied the young Ulsterman's rise into the world's elite, but he found the temptation to praise irresistible.
"Rory has all of the makings of being a great champion for a long period of time," said Woods, 14 years McIlroy's senior. "He's very feisty. The way he plays and the way he handles himself out there on the course, how competitive he is - it's what you have to be out here. Obviously he can move the ball out there. I used to move it like that back in yesteryear."
The relationship between the pair has gone through a big transformation in the last two years. At the 2010 Ryder Cup, McIlroy angered Woods by suggesting every player on the European team would relish taking on an out-of-form Tiger in the singles. The match-up never happened. But then they played with each other at Abu Dhabi three months ago and that experience, combined with watching McIlroy bounce back from the adversity of last year's final-round 80, led to a friendship based on respect which is still burgeoning.
"It was cool to see someone learn from their mistakes like that and apply it," said Woods. "We have seen obviously what he did last year at the Masters and how he came back and won at the [US] Open. He led, what, seven out of eight rounds in majors, which is pretty impressive.I didn't really know much about Rory at the time. I hadn't played with him. The first time I got a chance to really sit down and talk to him was this year at Abu Dhabi. That was fun, I think, for both of us."
Alas, the greenjackets decided not to pair Woods and McIlroy for the first two rounds of the 2012 Masters and the hope of the majority is these titans of their generations will collide on Saturday or, whisper it, on Sunday. Woods will play with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez and the highly-rated young South Korean Bae Sang-moon. Yet it was the McIlroy draw which caused most eyebrows to raise.
McIlroy returned here to the Augusta National declaring he had already expunged the bad memories of that capitulation. But, as if to test his resolve, the officials then handed him a date with the player who he partnered during his Masters meltdown.
Angel Cabrera, the 2009 champion, had stood and looked on in discomfort - as did the whole of watching world - as McIlroy blew a four-shot lead in a hail of pine needles. The Argentine consoled the then 21-year-old. "I told Rory that he's very young and he can win this tournament many times," said Cabrera. "That can happen to anyone. It was just tough."
Tough, indeed. Although McIlroy cut a confident pose in the media centre as he spoke of that slow torture. "It's something that I learned from and quickly forgot," said McIlroy, who won the US Open by eight strokes two months later. "I moved on and moved on pretty well."
McIlroy actually laughed when he first revisited the 10th hole during a practice round last week. The par four was the scene of his triple-bogey seven following a hook which finished between two previously uncharted cabins. "I can't believe how close those cabins are - they're only 50 yards from the tee!" he said. "But, you know, it's great to be able to laugh about it now."
If McIlroy laughs, the whole of Georgia will laugh with him. Of course, the brunt of the attention is centred on him and Woods. But Luke Donald, the world No 1, and Lee Westwood, the No 3, were keen to point out the obvious fact that this major features other players. Indeed, Westwood looked and sounded completely bemused when informed that a headline in Sports Illustrated had labelled "the Tiger and Rory show" as "the only show in town".
"Rory has never won here and Tiger hasn't won here since 2005," said the Englishman, who finished runner-up here two years ago. "Someone would have to be very naive to think it was a two-horse race, wouldn't they? I think Phil [Mickelson, the three-times champion] could [do something] about that; Luke might; I might... I hope they [Woods and McIlroy] get drawn together and we can just cruise around in our own little bubbles."
As it transpired, the Englishman was not granted his wish, but would have been pleased with receiving a low-key draw alongside Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk. The same applies to Donald, who is paired with Francesco Molinari and Nick Watney. Donald recognises the over-simplistic perversity in the spotlight zeroing in on just two names. "In the last three or four years of majors, I don't think there's been multiple winners of the majors," said Donald.
In fact, that run stretches back 14 majors. Donald is plainly confident of making it 15. "What am I, 14-1, 16-1?" he said to The Independent. "That could be a good price, yeah."
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