Tiger's text banter puts McIlroy in mood for Masters
IF Rory McIlroy was in need of any motivation to return to the world No 1 spot taken by Tiger Woods, then it arrived from the usurper himself.
"Take your finger out of your a** and win this week," Woods texted the young Ulsterman.
That is exactly what McIlroy requires here at the Houston Open if he is to tee it up at the Masters in two weeks' time at the top of the rankings and limit Woods' latest reign to a mere six days.
How perfectly would that set up the season's first Major?
Of course, winning is the aim for McIlroy, but his first ambition is essentially to contend on Sunday. And if he falls short?
Well, as he says, it would not be a disaster if he arrived in Augusta as No 2. In fact, after the few months he has endured, it might even be preferable to see someone else being stalked by the spotlight.
"I don't think I could go into the Masters under the radar," McIlroy said.
"But I can go in a little bit underneath him so, in a way, it's not a bad thing. At the minute, with me trying to get my game back to where I think it can be, it's nice to go about my business, and I guess, not be the most talked about person in golf."
Woods' third win of the season in Monday's storm-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational has ensured that he will command the headlines in Georgia.
From a sporting perspective, his control between the ropes yelled of redemption, while outside the ropes his confirmation of a relationship with skier Lindsey Vonn will monopolise the lifestyle perspective.
"I texted him this morning and said 'well done'," McIlroy said.
"I just congratulated him on winning at Bay Hill and with all the Lindsey Vonn stuff as well – and he said everything was good there."
There followed the banter from Woods which defines their friendship. "He gives me a lot of grief and I try to give him some back," McIlroy said.
Real grief would be to deny Woods his first Major in five years and his first Masters in eight.
After a campaign in which he has missed the only two stroke-play cuts he has come up against, it is difficult to see McIlroy in the Green Jacket on April 14. And his own comments concerning Woods revealed the scale of the challenge.
"Tiger has been 'the man' in golf for the last 15 years and it's great for golf to have him up there," McIlroy said.
"Hopefully I can just try to keep up. He's playing really, really well and putting really, really well. His consistency is definitely back.
"When he was going through the first part of his swing changes with Sean (Foley, his coach), some weeks he had it, some he didn't.
"Now most weeks he's hitting the ball very solidly, and anyone who's going to beat him is going to have to play very, very well."
McIlroy is obviously capable of that, but he needs ideal preparation here if he is to make up the ground. Since dominating the sport at the end of last season, McIlroy has struggled with his swing, which may or may not have been down to a few factors.
Firstly, there was the change of equipment to Nike in a $200m deal.
Then there was the period of competitive inactivity between the second week of January and the last week of February.
Here we stand with March running out and McIlroy has completed seven competitive stroke-play rounds this year.
Yet the most recent two rounds were crammed with hope. At the WGC Cadillac Championship, three weeks ago, McIlroy believed he began to fix the problem, which he maintains was purely technical.
"I shot a 65 on the final day at Doral and saw a lot of good things," he said.
"It's been going well in practice and this is a good week to try to get into contention and, you know, have a chance to win with the Masters coming up."
Last week McIlroy was watching his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki play in a tennis tournament down the Florida coast in Key Biscayne.
McIlroy was so keen to practise he turned up at a nearby public course and hit balls next to hackers. Then, on Saturday night, he took Novak Djokovic to the same range.
"It was a fun week, a good week," McIlroy said.
Now it is down to business. The finger is most definitely out. (© Daily Telegraph, London)