McIlroy gives chase to Tiger without threat of fear factor
Holywood star will have Woods in his sights on final day in Abu Dhabi, writes Dermot Gilleece
While watching Tiger Woods execute an exemplary birdie on the final hole at Abu Dhabi yesterday, all the expert analysis we've had to endure about his game over the last two years seemed to flood the mind like an overwhelming torrent.
Then we remembered the incisive words of David Feherty. "There's nothing wrong with his golf swing and there hasn't been anything wrong with it since he was on the Mike Douglas Show at two years old," he insisted at the height of the player's turmoil 18 months ago. "Tiger's problems are mental right now."
Feherty went on: "This is the most demoralising stretch of his career. He's more worried about what might happen instead of what is happening. For the first time, he sees weakness in himself and strength in others."
The restoration of a balanced mind allowed the one-time perennial world number one to shoot a third-round 66 for a share of the lead with England's Robert Rock, going into the final round today. And after four days in Woods' company, Rory McIlroy will have different playing companions when he begins the fourth round, a challenging two strokes off the lead.
Regarding their change of partners, Woods feigned relief when saying with a smile: "It will be nice to get rid of him (McIlroy)."
Elsewhere, the Irish challenge remained strong, with Graeme McDowell carding a 69 for a share of 11th place, while Gareth Maybin birdied the last in a 72 for tied 15th. Pádraig Harrington also shot level par to be four-under and tied 27th.
Following nine holes of practice together last Tuesday, McIlroy had his first opportunity of getting competitively close to his one-time idol over three tournament rounds. And he clearly enjoyed the experience, especially the buzz of the crowds and the general excitement Woods still generates, even though his last official tournament performance brought a missed cut in the PGA Championship five months ago.
As a callow youth of 17, McIlroy talked about admiring Woods "because of his demeanour; the way he handles himself on and off the course." And he remarked on Friday: "Having grown up idolising Tiger, it's a great thrill to be playing with him."
Though the off-the-course assessment was changed understandably by the lurid revelations of Woods' private life, McIlroy gave no indication of what he feels deep down about the American's current game. And that's the fascinating bit which will ultimately shape his prospects of success when they go down the stretch together in quest of a Major title, as they inevitably will.
In the meantime, all we have to go on is the intriguing remark: "I've seen up close how Tiger is playing and I feel if I play my best I've got a great chance." No inferiority complex there.
And, overall, the portents are good, on the evidence of yesterday's final hole. Whereas Woods hit a perfect drive down the right of this daunting par-five, McIlroy pushed his effort close to rocks in a sandy hazard some way further right. Knowing his rival was in a perfect position to make birdie, an inexperienced, intimidated player would probably have attempted an over-ambitious recovery.
McIlroy handled the challenge superbly. Seeing a line towards the parallel ninth hole on the other side of water, he decided to take that particular route. And without landing on any mown grass between tee and green, he eventually made a two-putt closing par which spoke volumes for his control of mind and emotions. This, while Woods hit a beautifully-controlled three-wood cut of 256 yards onto the green and two-putted for a four.
The Holywood star also believes he is a better player than he was 12 months ago. And this has to do largely with obvious physical development across his chest and shoulders. An indication of how thorough the modern player has become with regard to fitness can be gleaned from McIlroy's revelation that in the past he reached his optimum power on the downswing, eight inches short of the ball. Apparently his left side wasn't strong enough to maintain total control from there, resulting in a certain degree of inconsistency.
Having built up strength through gym work, however, especially down his left side, he can now maintain power right through the hitting area. "It means I can keep the club in a better position on the way down and do it more often," he said.
Meanwhile, we shouldn't be surprised that through all the interviews last week, they didn't throw any compliments at each other. That is certainly not the Woods way, as I discovered when asking him what he thought of Harrington's Major achievements. "He won the tournaments," he said. "He beat whoever he needed to beat in the field, plain and simple." That was the extent of his praise.
On a broader level, the experience of not being intimidated by Woods has to be seen as a very significant step in McIlroy's mental development as a leading player. It is something Darren Clarke achieved when beating Woods in the final of the Accenture World Match Play at La Costa in 2000 and it clearly stood to him when the world number one chased him down the stretch, unavailingly, in the Firestone Invitational of 2003.
In the same context, Harrington took a giant step when beating Woods in his own Target Challenge in 2002. Far more significant, however, was the Dubliner's experience in Japan four years later, when he beat Woods in a play-off for the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament.
Harrington talked later about a marked change in the body language of his playing partner as they battled for the title. "I had clearly aroused his interest, making him a different animal altogether," he said. "And when it was all over, I found myself remarking that Tiger really wants to be pushed, no matter what. I could sense his excitement, his focus. Sure he wanted to win, but he also wanted to be pushed. He wanted the competition."
McDowell had a similar experience when beating Woods in a play-off at Sherwood Country Club 13 months ago.
"Over the last two rounds of the Chevron, I learned how to play with Tiger," he said.
"While coping with all the stuff going on inside the ropes, it helped me get to know him. That's a big part of being able to compete against him because he obviously possesses a big intimidation factor as the greatest player to have played the game."
This time last year, McDowell said with total conviction: "I believe Tiger will be back. He'll be back strong, though probably not as strong as the peak he reached in 2000. Back then, he was doing things that were simply incredible."
Then he added: "I believe he is greater than Jack Nicklaus and I expect him to beat Nicklaus' record."
Since late November 2009 when an inconveniently-placed fire hydrant turned his life upside down, Woods has learned to recognise the often crushing deception of bright horizons. Which would explain his low-key reaction yesterday when he said: "I was just kind of consistent. I didn't do a whole lot wrong; I didn't do a whole lot right.
He knows that his raison d'etre has to do with 72 not 54 holes. And from first-hand experience he now has emphatic confirmation that this young Irishman, McIlroy, is a seriously formidable player.
Sunday Indo Sport