Masters champ eyes up McIlroy
It's the most mouth-watering US Masters in history for the Irish as Padraig Harrington goes eyeball-to-eyeball with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy struts his stuff for the first time at Augusta National.
Lest we forget, Ireland will also be represented at Augusta in April by Graeme McDowell, one of Europe's few stars at last September's Ryder Cup and someone who is capable of shining in any company.
Tiger's return and the influence it might have on Harrington's quest for a 'Paddy Slam' will dominate world headlines in the build-up to The Masters.
Yet those who have followed McIlroy's remarkable ascent in golf cannot wait to see him pit his 19-year-old wits against the most spectacular and strategic tests in world golf.
McIlroy rose five places to 35th in the world yesterday following his tie for fifth with Harrington in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
While the Holywood youngster completes the Desert Swing in Qatar and Dubai over the next two weekends, Harrington stayed on in Abu Dhabi for a few days of conditioning work with his fitness guru, Dr Liam Hennessy.
The Dubliner returns to action in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines the week after next, the first of six US events Harrington hopes will bring him to a peak at Augusta.
McIlroy appears to be doing his best to remain focussed on the day-by-day business of scaling the rock-face of professional golf when he describes Augusta National as "really, just another golf course".
Yet one only has to listen to reigning US Masters champ Trevor Immelman talk of the "spiritual" experience of walking into this cathedral of golf each year to believe that a life-long thrill lies ahead for McIlroy in April.
"It doesn't seem like Rory needs much advice as he's already pretty damn good," says Immelman. "Let's face it, the sky's the limit if he keeps moving things in the right direction.
"But it's tough to go to Augusta for the first time and figure out all the different nuances to the place.
“My advice is to get there before the tournament and have a good look around."
Immelman first qualified for the Masters as an amateur in 1999. "Back then, I went at the end of January and played the course every day, a fantastic thing to have the chance to do as an 18-year-old," he said.
Yet a reconnaissance trip would not completely help McIlroy get over the awe factor at Augusta, where one runs headlong into history at every turn.
"I don't think you ever get over it completely. I've played six or seven Masters and every time you go there it's just so incredible. It definitely gives me goose bumps."
Immelman also suggests McIlroy should arrange practice rounds with seasoned Augusta veterans. Ironically, the youngster already has one arranged with Immelman's fellow South African and mentor, Ernie Els.
"Rory should also play with guys who are maybe in the late 40s or late 50s.
"They'd be ready to give you the information because, in my experience, players who are in contention generally are really focussed on their own game and trying to figure out their own thing out there."