Rory McIlroy relishing chance to face rejuvenated Tiger Woods in Abu Dhabi

January 25, 2012

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Six years ago, 16-year-old Rory McIlroy borrowed a photographer’s camera and snuck inside the ropes to follow his hero Tiger Woods at the Dubai Desert Classic. McIlroy, then a promising amateur, had missed the cut after playing the event on a sponsor’s invitation. Woods was about to win the tournament. It was love at first sight.

And now here they were in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, the two main box office attractions, playing a practice round together and chatting about tennis and American football and swapping golf-geek tips on swing changes, putting and driving. They have been getting along swimmingly. Woods has long held the view that McIlroy would one day be No. 1 in the world, and he has now clearly welcomed the 22-year-old star (currently No. 3) into his inner sanctum. Membership there was no doubt guaranteed after McIlroy won last year’s U.S. Open by a Tiger-like eight shots.

McIlroy has enough youthful cockiness to not be intimidated by Woods, but he talked Wednesday about the enormous respect he has for him. McIlroy is inspired to be around his boyhood idol.

“Growing up and watching Tiger for the last 15 years, he was the face of golf for a long, long time,” he said. “He still is the face of golf. He set the benchmark for a lot of guys.”

McIlroy said he thought Woods would contend again in majors, and that he looked forward to being in the mix with him on Sundays. He was also fired up to play with Woods and Luke Donald in the first two rounds this week. (They tee off at 10:40 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, 7:40 a.m. Thursday in Abu Dhabi.)

“There are not many tournaments that you get really excited about a Thursday or Friday, but this is one of those times,” he said. “If I was to come up against Tiger at any point in a tournament this year, it would be a great thing for me to see how my game would hold up against that sort of pressure, and something I could definitely learn from.”

In their practice round, McIlroy got a close-up view of the results of all of Woods’s hard work on his game. “He looked in good shape,” McIlroy said, adding that Tiger’s return to form can only be good for golf. There was a time when McIlroy was not so comfortable with the thought of playing against Woods.

“Definitely the first time I played with Tiger I was a little nervous,” he admitted. It was a skins game at the Memorial Tournament just two years ago, and the story shows just how far McIlroy has come in such a short time. “You’ve watched this guy on TV your whole life winning majors and doing things that no one thought was possible, so you’re going to be a little awestruck.”

They played together again at the Chevron World Challenge in 2010, but this will be the first time they will go head-to-head in a fully sanctioned tournament. But the awe has been struck off. Familiarity, in this instance, has bred contentment.

“Once I got to spend a little time with him and maybe have lunch a few times, you can sort of break the barrier down a bit,” McIlroy said. “I feel pretty comfortable in his company. I feel like he feels pretty comfortable in mine.”

Their pairing is the one everyone around the world has wanted to see, but there is a sense here in Abu Dhabi that this is just the warm-up act. The dream ticket is Woods vs. McIlroy in the last group on a Sunday at Augusta National, the Olympic Club, Royal Lytham and St. Annes, or Kiawah Island, the venues for this year’s majors.

The third member of this week’s stellar three-ball might just have a say in those potential major showdowns. Luke Donald, as so often is the case for the softly spoken Englishman who now lives in Chicago, is the forgotten man in the middle.

“Great draw,” Donald said. “It will be good to play with Tiger again. It’s been a while. I got to play with Rory a few weeks ago in Dubai. Looking forward to that pairing.”

In 2006, Donald found out just how tough it is to go head-to-head with Woods. It was Sunday at the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah, and Donald was not the confident, double-money-list-winning world No.1 that he is now. He went backward, like so many of Woods’s playing partners in the past.

“It’s not just playing with Tiger, it’s the fact that he brings a bigger crowd,” Donald said. “There’s a little bit more of an atmosphere. You’re going to feel a little bit differently. Certainly my experiences over the last few years, I’ve played with him quite a few times, that feeling of feeling intimidated certainly dissipates.”

Donald and McIlroy have developed their games and confidence, and so much has happened to Woods, that they no longer feel he has a psychological edge. But if Woods really is back in a happy place with his life and his game, they may well be the first to experience the beginning of a new aura for Woods. Not one of fear, perhaps, but one of respect for a 36-year-old, 14-time major champion making a comeback.