Tuesday 26 March 2019

McIlroy under radar as Woods flying high

Tiger Woods plays a shot during yesterday’s pro-am ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Tiger Woods plays a shot during yesterday’s pro-am ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Few players are as aware of the "narrative" that drives the media beast as Rory McIlroy.

And as he continues his countdown to the Masters in earnest in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill today, he has a chance to slip under the radar for another few hours at least should Tiger Woods continue his almost superhuman comeback.

The Co Down man (28) has gone to Augusta National under huge pressure for the past three years, seeking that elusive final leg of the career Grand Slam.

Anything that can dim the spotlight's glare can only help his cause and while a ninth win at Bay Hill would ramp up the pre-Masters hype rightly surrounding Woods (no bad thing for the Northern Irishman's cause), he knows he needs to start showing some form soon.

"I feel like the best way to prepare you for a big week like that is in contention, feeling those nerves down the stretch," McIlroy (above) said at Pebble Beach earlier this year when asked about ideal preparation for the Masters.

Having contended for victory in his two previous starts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, he was riding high on the west coast that week.

Five weeks on and with just two weeks of his heaviest pre-Masters schedule remaining, he needs to put missed cuts at Pebble Beach and last week's Valspar Championship behind him, not to mention erratic performances in the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club and the Honda Classic.

With Phil Mickelson winning the WGC-Mexico Championship at 47 and Woods edging closer to what could go down as the greatest golfing comeback of all time at 42, McIlroy and the rest of the tour's young guns will be keen to show they can still play a bit with four of the world's top 10 - Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day - in a field featuring 24 of the top 50.

After all, the four-time Major winner from Holywood finished tied 11th at Bay Hill in 2015 and fourth behind Marc Leishman 12 months ago.

Whether coach Michael Bannon has managed to iron out the timing issue that's affected his swing in recent weeks remains to be seen but as far as the bookies are concerned, Woods is the favourite this week - surely a first for the world's 149th-ranked player going into a PGA Tour event.

As for McIlroy, down to 13th in the world and with only next week's WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play to come, another confidence-sapping week is unthinkable.

But if there's an urgency for McIlroy, it's still about baby steps for Woods, despite last week's second-place finish in Tampa. Returning to Bay Hill for the first time since his eighth win in 2013, he says he's simply enjoying the fact that he can contemplate winning again.

"At one point, man, that wasn't even a thought," Woods said this week. "I didn't ever even think about playing out here."

In a warning to punters, he added: "Just because I won here eight times doesn't mean I'm going to win this week automatically. I've still got to do the work.

"I've still got to go through the process of getting myself in position. But I understand this golf course…"

If McIlroy needs a strong week between now and the Masters to get his juices flowing, Pádraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry know a win would open the gates to Magnolia Lane.

Both McDowell and Lowry have shown signs recently that they are not far away from clicking.

But if Harrington (46) is to join fellow quadragenarian Mickelson (47) in the winner's enclosure, he will have to avoid a fifth missed cut in six starts this year.


He's already being talked about as a potential Ryder Cup captain in 2020. But with Woods accepting the US Presidents Cup captaincy opposite Ernie Els for 2019, Harrington's name will be mentioned in the same breath as Woods' with the American hotly tipped to take the Ryder Cup captaincy in Rome in 2022.

There is no event on the European Tour this week, but there an Irish interest in South Africa with Dubliner Neil O'Briain in contention to win the Rookie of the Year award at the Sunshine Tour's season-ending Tour Championship at Serengeti Estates.

It's a straight fight between the Royal Dublin man and American Zack Byrd for the Bobby Locke Trophy which has been captured in recent years by the likes of Haydn Porteous, Dylan Frittelli and Canada's Graham DeLaet.

Byrd looked to have an almost unassailable lead after he finished tied second in the Investec Royal Swazi Open and added two more top-10 finishes.

But he's now R14,372 behind O'Briain, who finished third in last month's lucrative Dimension Data Pro-Am.

  • Arnold Palmer Invitational, Live, Sky Sports, 6.0pm

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