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The good guy needs the bad guy to produce his best

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Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy was leading the field in Florida last Sunday and on his way to becoming the number one player in the world.

He already had the unofficial title of world's most popular, likeable golfer. His ascent to the apex of the game would be greeted universally with affection and smiles. The new face of golf would be a sublime natural talent who also happened to be a charming, affable lad. Everyone was hoping he would do it this day.

Then who should come riding into town but a feared and familiar ghost from their past: the righteous loner, the avenging angel, the outlaw Tiger Woods.

He marched through the batwing doors of the saloon and all heads turned. The piano player stopped playing. The chatter dwindled to a hush. The good-time girls fluttered their petticoats (as well they might). No one was smiling anymore.

The man who was once the fastest gun in the west had come back to challenge the young pretender; the kid would have to earn it. They stood and faced each other. The punters ducked behind tables, the barman cowered beneath his counter. They counted to ten and then went for their five-irons.

The kid was a fraction faster. He won the duel. Everyone could breathe again. It was a victory for family values. And if this were a standard morality tale, the good guy would've won anyway; it would've been preordained. But this was a live sporting contest of the highest calibre, its outcome unscripted and up for grabs. And all eyes were on the metaphorical bad guy. Woods was magnetic to watch, compelling in a way that he hadn't been for some three years. The aura, in all its power, was back.

On a day when the scoring average was 72.1, Woods shot a 62, his lowest final round ever on the PGA Tour. It was the sort of voracious performance that recalled his halcyon years: fired up in the eyes, pumping the air when his putts dropped. Even his shirt, a vivid red, was flashing out danger signs.

When he's in this sort of mood he is sealed off from the world. Among the watching crowds there is wonder and awe; there is also a distance; they are kept outside his force-field.

When a Mickelson or McIlroy pulls off special shots, the crowds share in their joy, as if there is a mutual empathy at work between them. They feel included, the personal chemistry permits it.

Which is probably why there's a greater fascination with Woods. The more menace he exudes the more magnetic he becomes. If people complain that he doesn't play with the proverbial smile on his face, it doesn't put them off watching him. And anyway, talent is independence: it gives its owner a licence to behave differently. Be it sport or art or show business, the more brilliant the practitioner the more they are forgiven their failings. The conventional civic formula is reversed: who you are as a person is less important than what you can do.

McIlroy enjoys enormous popular appeal but Woods has a darker and altogether more powerful charisma. As the Honda Classic built to a climax on Sunday evening, he had three times as many people following him around the course. The tournament's director said that "ticket sales exploded" when Woods confirmed he would be turning up. And his final-round charge coincided with the tournament's highest television ratings in ten years.

He finished with a birdie at the 17th and an eagle on 18. The atmosphere was electric over those closing holes. He sank a 25-yard putt at 17. His second shot at 18 was 205 yards to the pin. He landed it on a narrow strip eight feet from the hole and seven feet from the water. It was a stunning shot. The roar reverberated around the course when he made the putt.

This was the moment Woods walked into the saloon. He was now only a stroke behind in the clubhouse while McIlroy still had the daunting final stretch to negotiate. McIlroy was on the 13th green facing a nine-foot birdie putt when Woods was making eagle on 18. "I heard that huge roar," he said afterwards. "I knew it definitely wasn't a birdie roar. I knew that putt at 13 was going to be very important."

He soaked the pressure and sank the putt. He ended up in the sand on 15 and 17 and on each occasion held his nerve to save par. His face showed none of the intensity and desire of the player he once idolised. Instead it was a picture of suppressed anxiety. But he stood up to the heat. He produced the shots. He took the tournament by two strokes and, aged 22, became the second-youngest player to reach number one in the world rankings. Woods of course was the youngest at 21 years and six months.

The jury is still out on Tiger's second coming after the long hiatus since 2009. The hope here is that he will find his best form, and sustain it long enough to come head to head again with McIlroy, ideally in one of the Majors.

It was Woods' challenge that anointed McIlroy's achievement. It was Woods who set the gold standard while McIlroy was still a boy. And, as he reminded us again on Sunday, he remains the most fascinating figure in his sport, or any sport.

thecouch@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport