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Dermot Gilleece: Stage set for Rory McIlroy to move to the next level

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'Woods continues to generate huge interest in the US, despite finishing tied last in the Hero World Challenge a month ago'

'Woods continues to generate huge interest in the US, despite finishing tied last in the Hero World Challenge a month ago'

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'Woods continues to generate huge interest in the US, despite finishing tied last in the Hero World Challenge a month ago'

For years it has been a cherished dream, the idea of an Irishman going head-to-head with Tiger Woods down the back nine at Augusta National in pursuit of a coveted green jacket. But it is unlikely to be realised, even if Rory McIlroy manages to close in on the career Grand Slam in early April.

McIlroy will be expected to resume the dominance associated with 62 weeks as world number one, when his competitive year begins this week in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Far less predictable, however, is the form of Woods who will return to action, at the ripe old age of 39, in the Phoenix Open starting on January 29, an event he last contested in 2001.

At this point two years ago we were about to learn of Paul McGinley's elevation to the Ryder Cup captaincy. Now, the likelihood is that the chosen one for Hazeltine National in 2016 won't be announced until later next month.

After conflicting sponsorship deals, involving the captain and the actual event, led to a commercial mess for Nick Faldo's tenure in 2008, the European Tour became seriously exercised about such matters for future candidates. So it is that the anticipated crowning of Darren Clarke is unlikely to happen until possibly a few weeks after the completion of the desert swing in Dubai on February 1.

As one of five selectors, with Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, David Howell and the Tour's chief executive George O'Grady, appointed under a new format, McGinley has clarified his seeming reticence in supporting Clarke for the role. And it has nothing to do with the fractured relationship between the pair. "It's important that people don't attribute too much to me, given that I represent only 20 per cent of the decision-making process," he said. "I want to be fair and even-handed."

He went on: "Since Gleneagles, the only communication I've had with Darren was a very brief chat in China [last November]. When the five of us meet next month a significant part of my input will be the views of the players I have been speaking to. This has become one of the hallmarks of our recent success and I believe it would be fundamentally wrong to change it. There is still a lot of groundwork to be done."

Meanwhile, from a playing perspective, Augusta adopts added importance because of McIlroy's tilt at history. In which context, he is 6/1 favourite to win the Masters. A lot more interesting, however, is that the Americans rate Woods not far behind at 12/1, illustrating his enduring appeal among punters there. Then we have the hardy annual of the 'Calendar Grand Slam'. And the odds against McIlroy winning at Augusta, Chambers Bay (US Open), St Andrews (The Open) and Whistling Straits (PGA Championship) seem ridiculously short at 80/1. Mind you, an American expert pointed out: "Bookmakers are in the business of making money, not making friends."

Before venturing further into the year's Majors, I must make mention of Willie Aitchison, who died last week, aged 85. A celebrated bagman, he caddied at every St Andrews Open from 1960 to 2000 and I had a memorable chat with him on the occasion of the 2010 staging on the Old Course.

That was when Willie proudly told me: "I'm now the oldest of the old-time caddies - the last survivor. I caddied for (Sam) Snead and (Gary) Player. And I caddied for (Tom) Watson in the Irish Open at Woodbrook in 1975, after he and his regular man, Alfie Fyles, had a bit of a falling-out over money."

He also recalled a visit to Royal Portrush with some friends. And how the local caddies, on recognising him, doffed their caps in what he described as a very humbling gesture.

His most celebrated partnership, of course, was with Lee Trevino. And Aitchison recalled their St Andrews swansong in 2000 when the R and A gave special permission for his wife and family to join the pair on the 18th. Looking at the assembled Aitchisons, Trevino remarked: "Willie, I've all the money I'll ever need, but you're the luckiest man in the world to have your family around you like this. I envy you."

McIlroy was in Dubai last week, removing winter rust after an extended lay-off from the game. And he will return there for further work next week, before his second outing of the new year in the Desert Classic starting on January 29.

After that, legal matters in Dublin's commercial court will demand his attention until he heads for Florida and the Honda Classic on February 26, followed by the Cadillac Championship at Doral a week later. Beyond that, the only certainty is that he will visit Augusta National prior to Masters week.

Could McIlroy win the so-called Calendar Slam?

"I wouldn't be enticed to back him at odds of 80/1," said McGinley. "But I believe it's certainly possible for a player to handle such a situation, mentally.

"The biggest challenge Rory faces in his life right now is to find the motivation to keep going forward, while dealing with the burden of expectation on his shoulders every time he tees it up. He's a mature kid who understands the responsibilities of being world number one, but it's important that he embraces and uses each challenge as a motivating force."

As for Woods' prospects: McGinley knows all about injury in that he is currently recovering from a sixth knee operation and hopes to be back hitting balls this week. "One thing I've learned is never to rule out Tiger," he said. "But he's nearing 40, which brings its own challenge. Still, he's such a great competitor that you can never discount him."

Looking to his 20th year on tour, Woods continues to generate huge interest in the US, despite finishing tied last in the Hero World Challenge a month ago.

At the beginning of the 2000 golf season, bookmakers offered odds of 66/1 against him winning three Majors that year. And he proceeded to win the last three as part of what became the Tiger Slam. But he was a ludicrously tight 3/1 to win the Masters, which went, as it happened, to Vijay Singh. Indeed, from the time he was installed at odds of 1,000/1 to complete the Grand Slam in the wake of a 12-stroke Masters triumph in 1997, nobody seemed to exercise punters' minds about the big events like Woods. Until now.

Yet leading statisticians believe that such thoughts are entirely fanciful, given the quality of opposing players on four very demanding courses in unpredictable weather. Not counting the weight of history and the need for prime physical well-being.

In 1972, when Jack Nicklaus won the first two legs of the Grand Slam, he set off for Muirfield at apparently farcical odds of only 2/1 to win the Open Championship - and finished second. Yet the Bear didn't think of it as at all far-fetched. "During the 1970s, attaining the Grand Slam became my goal," he reflected, more than 20 years later.

What, then, are realistic odds? An American statistician puts them at no better, mathematically, than 20,000/1. Others believe it should be closer to a million to one, when due consideration is given to the magnitude of the emotional challenge as the target gets closer.

After Woods had captured the 2000 US Open by a staggering 15 strokes at Pebble Beach, he was asked just how good did he think he was. "I will probably have a better understanding when I'm 60 years old," he replied. "You really can't assess your career until you go through it."

In the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, a lot of people have passed water under the bridge since Woods uttered those fateful words, almost 15 years ago. For McIlroy, the situation has yet to arise where he has been required to offer a comparable assessment of himself.

Events this year may tell us how far he has gone towards matching the dominance of his one-time golfing hero. In the meantime, thoughts of April and Kelly green do much to brighten these dark days.

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