G-Mac has guile to outshine megastars
THE world of golf is salivating at the prospect of Rory McIlroy getting up close and personal with tournament host Tiger Woods in southern California this weekend.
Yet McIlroy himself will look no further than today's first round with Graeme McDowell, a latter-day Robin Hood when it comes to playing at Sherwood Country Club.
Having brilliantly broken his win drought by pinching the Australian Open title from under the nose of Adam Scott at Royal Sydney last Sunday, McIlroy cleared the greatest obstacle standing in his path for the past 12 months – namely himself.
His confidence restored, the 24-year-old goes into this week's Northwest Mutual World Challenge determined to post further notice of his intent to hunt down world No 1 Tiger in 2014.
Since linking up with his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki in Los Angeles, the happy couple took time out on Tuesday to amble down Rodeo Drive, dine at Mr Chows and take in Beyonce's concert at the Staples Center, an evening that "couldn't be better", the Danish tennis ace tweeted.
McIlroy played with JP McManus and Dermot Desmond in yesterday's Pro-Am and is paired with McDowell in today's first round of a tournament which traditionally enjoys a laid-back, end-of-season feel, until competitive sparks begin to fly at the weekend.
Though Tiger has won five times since inaugurating this event in 2000 as a fundraising vehicle for his charitable foundation, McDowell has comprehensively outperformed even Woods on three appearances here to date.
In that time, the Portrush man has banked $3m in prize money in a tournament which also has played a significant part in shaping his destiny.
For example, McDowell's runner-up finish behind Jim Furyk in 2009 crucially propelled him back into the world's elite top 50, setting up the Portrush man for a stellar season in 2010, when he counted the US Open among four tournament victories and clinched victory for Europe at Celtic Manor.
That year finished on a high when McDowell beat Woods in extra-time at Sherwood, famously forcing Tiger's former caddie Steve Williams to put back on his bib by holing a brilliant birdie putt at the last to make it all-square.
McDowell couldn't make it to Thousand Oaks in 2011, Tiger taking the opportunity to win his first tournament since the infamous 'crash of 2009'. Yet the Ulsterman once again was unstoppable on his return to Sherwood last year as he notched a vital first win in two years.
Not even Tiger can rival McDowell's current record run of eight consecutive rounds in the 60s at this venue.
"No doubt, this certainly is my kind of course," he said.
"I think it places a premium on accuracy and good, aggressive iron play," added world No 12 McDowell, who hit 63 of 72 greens in regulation last year. "Also, the greens are good. I've always kind of rolled the ball well here."
In the wake of last Sunday's dramatic finale in Sydney, however, all eyes are on McIlroy in his first appearance in Tiger's tournament since his debut in 2010, when he shared fourth.
An elite 18-man field competes for a $3.5m purse and a $1m first prize in California, while halfway around the world in South Africa, an even more substantial $6.5m purse is on offer this week at the annual Nedbank Challenge.
A 30-strong field at Sun City is led by FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai double-winner Henrik Stenson plus Charl Schwartzel, who finished in top spot at Leopard Creek last Sunday for the second year in succession.
While bumper world ranking points have been on offer for several years at Sherwood and Sun City, controversially, a proportion of the money won by any European Tour members at the Nedbank will count in the 2014 Race to Dubai and for Ryder Cup qualification.
For example, the bumper $1.25m first-place cheque on Sunday converts into €917,700 cash. If that winner is European, an 'adjusted' 795,338 points, matching the top prize at the Tour's showpiece BMW PGA Championship in Wentworth next May, will be added to his Order of Merit and Ryder Cup tally.
This 'adjustment' takes into account the limited field in Sun City, where the prize for first place is just €38,808 shy of the entire tournament purse being contested by 138 players at this week's co-sanctioned Hong Kong Open.
Like McDowell at Sherwood, Miguel Angel Jimenez looks a perfect fit for Fanling, where he replaced Des Smyth as the oldest winner in European Tour history (at 48 years and 318 days) as he landed the Hong Kong title for the third time.
Hong Kong Open,
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