Mature McIlroy ready to take on 'bully' boys
RORY McILROY will never again surrender the initiative to an opponent as he did to Lee Westwood during the Dubai World Championship two years ago.
At the tender age of 20, McIlroy entered the final week of that European Tour season with a slender lead in the inaugural Race to Dubai before Westwood "bullied" (his word) the young Ulsterman into submission with an imperious performance.
In the two years since, McIlroy has changed utterly, his transformation from 'wunderkind' into the buzz player in world golf accelerating with each of the past 11 months.
So, Holywood's reigning US Open champion is far better equipped for the mental challenge he faces this week in the sweltering desert sun as he tries to overtake England's world No 1 Luke Donald in the final sprint for the 2011 Race to Dubai title.
In June, for example, Ryder Cup star McIlroy showed resilience and maturity well beyond his years as he recovered from a nightmare meltdown on Sunday at the Masters to complete a record-shattering victory at Congressional 70 days later.
Off the course, he has severed a couple of significant ties with his youth, parting from his schooldays' girlfriend early last summer, followed by his surprising decision in October to leave his agent and long-time friend, Chubby Chandler.
Now dating tennis world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki and managed by Dublin firm Horizon, McIlroy's very much his own man and a Major champion in every sense of those words.
He proved as much last Sunday when he defied exhaustion from a mystery virus and 10 mad-cap weeks on the road to win the Hong Kong Open and set-up this week's Dubai World Championship confrontation with Donald.
Yes, the odds are stacked against McIlroy. Not only must he register the first back-to-back wins of his career on Sunday to have any chance of overtaking Race to Dubai leader Donald, but the Northern Irishman also requires the highly consistent Englishman to finish outside the first nine, which may be the less likely of the two requirements.
Unlike two years ago, however, there's unlikely to be any mind games on the Earth Course and, with his concentration focused entirely on his own golf game, McIlroy has a better chance of overhauling Donald this week than keeping Westwood at bay in 2009.
After that year's first round, McIlroy admitted he'd be relieved not to have to play with Westwood the following day, which his former ISM stablemate said was a massive boost to his confidence and morale.
"I don't really think it was something that cost me the tournament," the Ulsterman insisted yesterday. "Lee was head and shoulders above everyone else that week and even if I'd played my best, it probably wouldn't have been enough. I think he was 24-under when he won.
"It was just something I said," he added. "Something I was feeling. I'd found it tough in that first round to fully concentrate on my own game. That happens if you are looking at what the player beside you is doing.
"Yeah, I feel like it is something I've learned. When I go out tomorrow with Luke in the last game, I'll only be trying to concentrate on myself and my own game."
Westwood yesterday insisted: "No, I don't think I exploited Rory's inexperience. I used my experience."
With a mischievous grin, he then added: "You know, maybe that was exploiting his inexperience a little bit, but it's part of the game really, isn't it? I didn't jump out and put him off or anything like that."
He acknowledged that McIlroy is "obviously more experienced now. He's got two years of extra competitiveness and playing under his belt and I suppose he did well to win last week and give himself a chance.
"I still think the ball is still in Luke's court. It's always difficult when you actually have to win to do it."
Indeed, Westwood, would like nothing better next Sunday than to spike any debate about the Race to Dubai by winning Dubai World Championship for the second time on another course that fits his eye.
"I'd be nice to see someone having a putt for everything," he said, smiling: "But, hopefully, not. Hopefully, I'll win the tournament instead.
McIlroy, looking tired and drawn yesterday as he awaited the results of this week's blood tests in Dubai, admitted: "I'm not 100pc energy-wise," he said.
But he's unlikely to have any trouble getting the adrenaline flowing this weekend.