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Rory McIlroy believes Tiger Woods could be in the hunt at Irish Open at Portstewart

By Adam McKendry

Rory McIlroy has said a "happy" Tiger Woods can become a force in golf once more, while the Ulsterman has also refused to rule out the possiblity that Woods may compete at the Irish Open at Portstewart in July.

The 14-time Major winner returned from a long-term injury at the Hero World Challenge last weekend, finishing 15th, and has now set his sights on matching Jack Nicklaus' record Major haul of 18.

He will have to fight his way back to the top but his strong showing in the Bahamas had more positives than negatives and will give him confidence going forward.

Speaking at the Excellence in Sport Awards in Dublin, World No.2 McIlroy admitted he was impressed by Woods' return to action.

"The excitement levels are huge any time he tees it up," said McIlroy. "I think he exceeded everyone's expectations, not sure if he exceeded his own, but he definitely made some great swings.

"He looked comfortable, and he looked happy which I thought was the most interesting thing. He looked happy to be out there which we probably haven't seen in a while.

"Any time we saw him on a golf course in the last couple of years he had the furrowed brow and he has been so concentrated.

"But he looked happy, so obviously that tells you he has been away and he has come back out happy and he is in a better place."

Rumours of a potential appearance in Portstewart began circulating after Woods' agent revealed that he wanted to play in more events on the European Tour this season. The Irish Open would definitely qualify as one of the more lucrative events, while this season it will have an added pull factor as it is held on the links of Portstewart, making it excellent practice for The Open Championship which is two weeks later at Royal Birkdale.

"I think the date two weeks before The Open entices guys to come over early and acclimatise to the conditions and get to play links golf," Holywood's four-time Major winner said.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of the Americans at the Ryder Cup come over and play this year."

Meanwhile, the first round of the Dubai Ladies Masters was postponed after a caddy, Maximilian Zechmann, fell ill on the course before later being pronounced dead in hospital.

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