The Masters: Don't compare me to Tiger, says Rory McIlroy
After the novelty of the juvenile debutant the focus at the Masters shifts to those who might win it and ultimately to the great narrative driving the game: Rory versus Tiger.
Fresh from his second spot at the Texas Open on Sunday, McIlroy has at least made plausible the idea that Woods has a serious rival here this week.
As absurd as it sounds, McIlroy, at 23, is delighted to surrender the precocious tag to Guan Tianlang, nine years his junior. Somehow the arrival of the nipper from China has forced us to look at McIlroy through new eyes, as the finished article, not a work in progress. McIlroy was first through the media suite door with his game-face on, still engaging but with a degree of distance hitherto unseen between participant and observer, inevitably perhaps following the Florida nadir of "dentalgate". The errant wisdom tooth comes out in June, he told us by way of footnote.
The distance between the Honda walkout is measured in scores as well as time. The switch he flicked at the WGC-Cadillac in Doral with his final-round 65 has taken him down a route back to something like the form with which he closed out last year. The mind is no longer cluttered by the shrapnel of pull hooks and missed greens. He comes here ready to reclaim from Woods not only the No 1 ranking he surrendered but the heightened status that only victories in majors can bring.
It is worth noting that McIlroy won the last major of 2012 and a victory here would constitute the kind of back-to-back triumph that sets apart the greats. He would, he said, be disappointed not to add the ultimate garb in golf to his wardrobe on Sunday. "Every time you come here to Augusta, you're wanting to win that Green Jacket, and every time that you don't, it's another chance missed. If I'm sitting here on Sunday night and I've finished second, or if I've given it a good run, you can't be too disappointed because you've had a great tournament. But the ultimate goal is getting one of those jackets."
If McIlroy's control of this environment is a reliable indicator of confidence then he must be reckoned with here. He has acquired that most precious gift of learning how to win big events early. No matter what depths he has plumbed before, the moment he reconnects with that winning feeling in a major championship McIlroy is elevated automatically to a level beyond the scope of most. He feels comfortable here, despite the cataclysmic collapse on the back nine two years ago. The 10th, where the unravelling began, holds no terrors for a young warrior who has since proved himself elsewhere. And after running Martin Laird close on San Antonio's back nine on Sunday, he comes here with his game dialled in.
"I got what I wanted out of it in terms of playing more competitive golf, getting the scorecard in my hand, shooting scores. I think a bonus was getting into contention and I felt like how I played when I got into contention was really pleasing.
"I chased Martin down there pretty hard on the back nine. Most Sundays when you shoot 66 in these conditions, it's going to be enough. I just got beaten by an unbelievable round that day. I've always said the main golf season is from the start of April to the end of August, so that's when I want to play my best golf. I'm glad to be back here. I have no ill memories of the place at all. All the demons were gone when I walked off the 18th green. I absolutely adore the place."
His first major championship, the US Open in 2011 came with Woods out of the field. His second at the US PGA last August came with Woods out of sorts. Here Woods appears back to his imperious best, three times a winner already this year on the PGA Tour, and six since ending the drought that stretched back to 2009 at Bay Hill 13 months ago. If McIlroy effectively filled the gap left by Woods in the post-scandal period, here they meet on equal terms. Cleverly McIlroy seeks to cool comparisons in order to give him more room to breathe.
"I don't see myself as a rival to Tiger or to anyone. Tiger obviously has been on tour for, I don't know, what, 12 more years than me or something like that. When you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success. He's got 77 PGA Tour events [wins]; I've got six. He's got 14 majors; I've got two [laughter]. If I saw myself as a rival to Tiger, I wouldn't really be doing him much justice."
Nice try Rory, but it won't wash. The demure face presented by McIlroy runs counter to the hyped "welcome to the family" theme portrayed by Nike following his equipment change from Titleist to the swoosh at the start of the year. The commercial that launched the association of McIlroy and Nike rolled out the rivalry with Woods as its central theme; first among equals so to speak. Secretly that is exactly how McIlroy sees it. And so does Woods.
"I think that over the course of my career, I've had a few [rivals]," Woods said. "Certainly Rory is [my biggest rival] this generation. I've had Phil [Mickelson] and Vijay [Singh] and Ernie [Els] and David [Duval] for a number of years, and now Rory's the leading player of this new, younger generation."
The Masters draw committee recognised the status of the pair by sending them out in opposite sides of the draw. Woods is the headline act among the early starters, playing alongside Luke Donald and Scott Piercy. McIlroy leads the afternoon parade in a group that includes Keegan Bradley, whom he beat in the Ryder Cup singles after stepping straight from the passenger seat of a police car, and Fredrik Jacobson.