Only McIlroy can go eye-to-eye with Tiger
Published 24/01/2012 | 05:00
IT has the makings of golf's greatest rivalry since Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. This week in the Abu Dhabi HSBC championship, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy can give the world a fascinating foretaste of the many thrills to come in the Major arena.
Since Woods first shot to international prominence with his mould-breaking 1997 US Masters victory, golf has cried out for a player to step forward and go eye-to-eye with the Tiger.
Guys like David Duval, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and our own Padraig Harrington gave Woods the occasional run for his money.
Yet, so great was Tiger's domination of his sport, deep down, even these fine fellows knew they were mere pretenders to his throne.
The sudden fall of Woods since November 2009 inevitably left a vacuum at the top of the sport, which European golfers have rushed to fill. As Tiger licked his wounds, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, McIlroy and Martin Kaymer swept in to form a four-strong phalanx at the top of the world. With respect to Donald and Westwood, neither has managed yet to pierce that most significant of all mental barriers and win their first Major and certainly don't possess McIlroy's charisma.
Okay, Kaymer won the 2010 US PGA Championship and only a fool would bet against the German in Abu Dhabi, where he has appeared unbeatable in recent seasons.
Yet McIlroy's genius -- as witnessed over the first 54 holes at Augusta National last April and in his record-shattering victory at June's US Open, just 70 days after his final-day meltdown at the US Masters -- places him on an entirely different level to any other golfer in terms of raw talent.
With one exception: Tiger Woods, who proved in victory at his own Chevron World Challenge last November that the work he has been doing for the past 18 months with 'new' swing coach Sean Foley is ready to bear fruit.
Since bursting into the global limelight as a toothy and wildly exciting youngster at the US Masters in 1997, Woods has undergone three swing overhauls -- first under Butch Harmon, then Hank Haney and now with Foley.
Tiger's new action appears so nicely grooved and controlled, it is being compared in some quarters to that of Ben Hogan. And so impressive was Woods as he produced an old-fashioned birdie-birdie finish to overhaul Zach Johnson and claim his first win in two years, that Chevron is being viewed as a likely watershed in his career.
Colin Montgomerie says he would "not be surprised if Tiger won two Majors this year," adding, "though I'd like to see Lee Westwood claim his first Major at Augusta, it'd be huge commercially for our sport if Woods won the US Masters.
"I don't know if (US Open venue) Congressional will suit Tiger, while he could do well in the British Open at Lytham if he manages to stay out of the bunkers, yet I think Kiawah Island could be good for Tiger at the US PGA," added Monty.
He's not sure if Woods, now 36, will beat the 18 Majors won by Nicklaus. "What does he need, five more? That's as many as Seve won in his entire career. It's a big ask," the Scot mused.
The 'new' Tiger doesn't putt with the same assurance as before, which places his creaking short game under unprecedented pressure.
Meanwhile, gifted younger players like McIlroy, Kaymer and US Masters champion Charl Schwartzel certainly won't defer as much to Woods as their older peers.
Of golf's brave new breed, McIlroy's efforts over the next few years to muzzle the most powerful predator ever to walk a fairway is likely to become the stuff of legend.
This week's Abu Dhabi event is a perfect appetiser for April's clash between one-time master Woods and an Irish kid whose golf game makes Augusta buzz in the way its creators, Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, intended.
Woods is might, muscle and ferocity, McIlroy's all about finesse, precision and sweet timing.
Both are gloriously aggressive, while neither is invincible with the putter. The inevitable result is a power struggle on a super-hero scale -- a battle for which golf has pined since the days when Arnie and Jack ruled the world.