As Tiger Woods makes 2013 debut, he finds that Rory McIlroy is golf's new headliner

Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods
Warren Little / Getty Images
They'll meet again: Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, shown here at the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final in October, will play together in the first two rounds in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- If there was any doubt about Tiger Woods's current standing in the game, it was erased during his Tuesday press conference here in advance of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Of the 20 questions lobbed at Woods, 14 of them were about Rory McIlroy, who now holds the No.1 spot in the World Ranking that once seemed like Tiger's birthright.

One reporter went so far as to ask Woods -- arguably the greatest golfer of all time -- "what lessons have you learned" from the 23-year-old McIlroy. It was not clear whether this scribe had been drinking. Woods somehow managed to keep his equanimity throughout the tedious questioning, and a bit later, in a quieter moment, he said of McIlroy: "It's great. He's doing all the media. I love it. He can have it all. I can do my own thing with a lot fewer distractions."

Anyone who has followed the life and times of Woods knows this is poppycock. However wary of the media he may have grown, Woods is not, and never will be, content to play the role of second banana. Whatever affection he harbors for McIlroy ("he's a really nice kid"), Woods would like nothing better than to begin smacking him around on the course, beginning when they tee off together on Thursday at 7:40 a.m. local time (10:40 p.m. ET on Wednesday).

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Woods was asked how much McIlroy's ascension has motivated him.

"You know, it doesn't," he said, again testing the assembled reporters' gullibility. "The whole idea is to get better, and that's what I'm trying to do each and every year. If I get better, then I'm going to win golf tournaments. And I just need to continue focusing on what I can do."

To that end, Woods had a low-key off-season. His primary focus was improving his distance control with his short irons, his biggest bugaboo in 2012. After years of scandal, injury and swing changes, Woods played his first full season since 2007, and he felt his game coalesce as the year wore. This allowed him to fine tune, rather than overhaul, his swing this winter with his coach, Sean Foley.

"Sean and I didn't reinvent a new swing," Woods said. "We were basically out there refining what we have been working on for the past two years, just going out and hitting balls and getting reps in."

Woods, who pushed his body to the breaking point with his obsessive training and practice habits, also took one of the longest vacations of his golfing life.

"I just shut it down and got away from golf for a couple weeks," he says. "Just put the clubs away and never looked at them. It was nice to shut it down like that."

Woods has earned the break. He turned 37 a few weeks ago, and the ravages of time are obvious every time he removes his cap. His badly receding hairline is a stark contrast to McIlroy's boyish mop-top.

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Their multi-generational friendship began last year at this tournament with a spontaneous practice round, and their frequent pairings during the FedEx Cup thrilled the golf world. McIlroy was a boy during Woods's turn-of-the-century heroics, and he calls Tiger "a massive hero of mine growing up."

But now that he's had a chance to study Woods's game up close, McIlroy has come to appreciate some of the subtleties.

"He's just a really good pro," McIlroy said on Tuesday. "He gets his way around the golf course, and he hits really solid shots. He doesn't take too much on when he doesn't have to, but when he needs to, he can. You know, he can look like he plays average and still shoot 67, which is a sign of a really good player. So yeah, you know, he's really experienced and he knows how to get his ball around the golf course, and he still hits some unbelievably impressive shots. He's still got it."

During Woods's decade-plus of unprecedented dominance, every other player grew tired of having to rave about him. As Tiger begins the final act of his career, he has the chance to change the conversation. One big performance here in Abu Dhabi, and maybe it will be McIlroy who has to start answering all the questions about his rival.

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