Rory stealing Tiger's thunder in Abu Dhabi
McIlroy storms to early lead and leaves former No 1 in the shade
IT was the moment Rory McIlroy looked more like Tiger Woods than even the Tiger himself.
Roars like that which greeted the 22-year-old's sensational chip-in birdie on the par-five eighth hole at Abu Dhabi Golf Club used be reserved only for Mr Woods.
Yet McIlroy not only stole Tiger's thunder on a crisp, sun-splashed winter's morning in the desert -- the youngster also showed how much he has grown as a golfer since last summer's sensational US Open victory at Congressional, completely turning the tables on Woods during the first round of the Abu Dhabi Championship.
As he compiled a first-round 67 that gave him a share of the lead with Robert Karlsson on five-under, McIlroy proved he has mastered the art of being able to score well despite playing poorly.
Woods, meanwhile, played brilliantly from tee to green, repeatedly hitting his ball with power, precision and accuracy, but putted abysmally, eventually settling for a share of 10th place with 10 others after his first-round 70.
On this unforgettable day, McIlroy devoured chances as voraciously as the Tiger in his prime, while Woods frustratingly spurned birdie opportunities with his putter in the way a younger Rory used do.
LUKE DONALD is world No 1, but the Englishman showed admirable humility with his frank assessment of what it's like to play in the marquee group with McIlroy and Woods on the opening two days at the Abu Dhabi Championship.
"It was fun to be part of that threesome... Tiger and Rory are huge names in the world of sport and golf," said Donald, neatly capturing the atmosphere of this first showdown on Tour between Woods and the young Ulsterman most likely to replace him as master of the fairways.
It's astonishing how easily McIlroy has settled into Tiger's company.
McIlroy is nearly 15 years younger than Woods and, despite the muscle he has added during one year of an intensive physical training programme devised by Dr Steve MacGregor, he occasionally looked almost waif-like alongside the 6'2" Tiger.
Yet the generation gap that should exist between them simply vanished as the world's two most exciting golfers chatted as easily as old barrack-room buddies throughout yesterday's first round.
"We talked about everything out there," said McIlroy. "Gym routines, what we did in the off-season, dogs -- Tiger has two. Yeah, it was just normal sort of stuff.
"It doesn't feel like I'm talking to someone who is a lot older than me out there," added the Ulsterman. "I definitely feel older than 22, just because I've been travelling the world every year since I was 16, which makes you grow up pretty quickly."
McIlroy admitted this week that he had been overawed the first time he played in Tiger's company at a Skins Game before the 2010 Memorial Tournament... now they walk and talk on the fairways as equals.
TIGER enjoyed McIlroy's company but got just as much enjoyment from watching the Holywood ace go about his business on and around the greens at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Saying their round together "was good", Woods went on: "Rory didn't hit the ball quite as well as he'd like but, boy, he sure chipped and putted well. It was good stuff to watch."
During his march to 14 Major titles, Tiger regularly would break the heart and resolve of opponents by popping up with winning birdies on the days he played badly -- a skill McIlroy has acquired.
Both birdied their second hole, the 11th, McIlroy firing a super shot out of a fairway bunker for his before landing two more on 12 and 13 as Woods struggled to make sense of the pace and grain of the Abu Dhabi greens.
Despite this impressive opening, McIlroy's play from tee to green then grew ragged. "I didn't feel like I played good and definitely didn't strike the ball as well as I had been the last couple of weeks," admitted the youngster.
He hit just six of 14 fairways, against 10 by Tiger, and 12 greens in regulation as Woods missed just one. Crucially, however, McIlroy counted 11 single putts among his paltry total of 25, while there were just two in Tiger's tally of 35.
The birdies our artful dodger took on three of the par-fives -- especially that rousing chip-in from 16 feet at eight, after he had twice landed in fairway rough and then missed the green -- showed just how much McIlroy has matured as a competitor since the US Open.
"It's something I felt I improved on a lot last year, especially the final months of the season," said McIlroy, a winner in Shanghai and Hong Kong during that spell.
"I felt even if I'd not played well, I could still get around anyway, turning 74s into 70s if I played really bad and, on an average day like today, turning 70 into a 67. It makes a huge difference."
DESPITE his torment on the greens, Tiger taunted McIlroy repeatedly with his power and found putting surfaces with consistency and precision rarely seen since his career and reputation came crashing down in November 2009.
Now Woods has recovered from the knee and Achilles tendon injuries which severely hampered his game in the first half of last year, he's beginning to make significant strides forward under new coach Sean Foley.
"He is swinging really good. His game is in really good shape and there were a couple of times out there I wanted to try and keep up with him off the tee," said McIlroy.
"When you see a guy in front of you hitting it out there, you want to try and keep up with him."
Woods went on: "My long game felt the same as it had from Australia to the Chevron World Challenge and to here. I just had a hard time getting the feel for these greens."
If he does, watch out for Tiger this weekend!