McIlroy shrewd to avoid Tiger skirmish
AS Tiger Woods knocked Rory McIlroy off the top of the world with a vintage victory at the Arnie Palmer Invitational, the young Ulsterman's decision to skip Bay Hill looked very wise indeed.
Trying to beard the rampant Tiger on one of his favourite hunting grounds would have placed undue pressure on McIlroy as the 23-year-old recovers confidence in his golf game following a difficult start to his season.
Even being relegated to No 2 after 32 continuous weeks at the top of the world rankings has a bright side for McIlroy.
"It'll take the heat off him," said NBC golf pundit Johnny Miller yesterday. "Set him free again."
McIlroy's good friend and fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell agreed, adding: "Not being No 1 will give Rory a bit of a break from the spotlight and time to find his game again. He will bounce back. He has too much talent and it sets things up for a great battle at the top week-to-week."
The Portrush man also expects McIlroy to be inspired by Tiger's return to the top of the global game for the first time since October 2010.
"Rory's been No 1 for a while and having this kind of challenge definitely will gee him up and help him refocus."
It was difficult not to sympathise with Palmer last week as he expressed "surprise" and "disappointment" at McIlroy's decision not to play Bay Hill, especially after the Holywood starlet emphatically dismissed talk of a crisis with his new Nike clubs and his golf swing with last Sunday week's sizzling final-round 65 at Doral.
Yet with Woods back in such sensational form, hindsight suggests it would have been a grave error for McIlroy to engage in a high-profile head-to-head with golf's most voracious predator before his own rehabilitation was complete.
Should McIlroy's star continue to rise at this week's Shell Houston Open, the four rounds he plays at Redstone, not to mention next week's two-day mission to Haiti as UNICEF Ireland's honorary ambassador, will gird him for April's battle royal with Woods at the Masters.
How thrilling it would be to see the most irresistibly gifted golfer of his generation, McIlroy, take on the game's most immovable monolith, Woods, at Augusta National.
Make no mistake, Tiger's back at his pomp. It's simply a matter of time before he wins his 15th Major title and, after a five-year hiatus since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, resumes his pursuit of the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus.
Yesterday's two-stroke win over Justin Rose at Bay Hill – secured with a final round of two-under-par 70– threw up several awesome statistics.
It's Tiger's 99th win as a professional, his 77th on the PGA Tour, just five shy of Sam Snead's all-time record, while he joins Snead in history as the only eight-time winner at the same event in the US.
He returns to World No 1 for the 11th time this week, which is his 624th week at the top of the official rankings (McIlroy's career total is 39 weeks, incidentally, all of them since March 2012).
However, by far the most persuasive feature of Tiger's performance over three tumultuous days as he racked up his third PGA Tour victory of 2013 and sixth in 12 months was his overflowing confidence with the putter.
Woods might not have beaten the career-low 100 putts he recently accumulated over four days at Doral but he turned the clock back 13 years as he sank a succession of telling long-range efforts on the greens at Bay Hill.
Many will point to the calamitous triple-bogey eight by his playing companion Rickie Fowler, as the 24-year-old dumped two approach shots into the water fronting the green at 16 as the most telling moment of yesterday's storm-delayed final round.
Especially so when Woods hit the green there in two – and made birdie – out of the same fairway bunker he'd landed in last Friday as he stumbled to the first of three finishing bogeys which left him four shy of the lead at half-way.
The indelible highlight of Tiger's fourth round and, maybe, his year so far came on the green at 12 after Fowler sank a stunning 45-foot putt for his second birdie in three holes which threatened to cut the lead to one.
Instead, Woods holed from 27 feet for a birdie of his own, imperiously marching across the green after his ball with his putter raised high in the air. Caesar's back from the wars.
The action is unlikely to be as high-octane this week in Houston but it should be interesting for the Irish, especially as Shane Lowry has been invited to join McIlroy in the line-up at Redstone. Incredibly, British Airways misplaced the Clara man's clubs for the second time this season but Lowry still could do well in Houston.